Sunday, March 25, 2007

Charming Northanger Abbey enlivens ITV Jane Austen Season

Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's lesser-read novels, which is a shame, because it really is boundless fun. Perhaps, some could claim, this is because from a romantic point of view, there is less popular excitement engendered by its subsequently less famous central love-match, in comparison say to Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, whose intellectual sparring has rendered them almost iconic in Romantic Fiction. Arguably too, Northanger Abbey is treated (perhaps unfairly) as a 'light-weight' compared to Austen's more mature works, such as Emma, Mansfield Park and the touching emotional resonance of 'mature' love between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

Northanger Abbey can be read as a light-hearted parody of the Gothic Romance literary genre, which was hugely popular in Austen's day, and is lampooned mercilessly and wittily through the muddled adventures of the novel's sweet, naieve young heroine, Catherine Morland's over-attachment to these sensationalist narratives. Catherine's voracious consumption of these overblown adventures, horrors and seductions of her day, leads to unexpected complications and confusions in her own personal life, as fiction merges with reality in her mind, and she almost loses the man she loves, Henry Tilney, as a consequence.

This is foremost a story about a teenager on the cusp of womanhood, and is consequently alive with the foibles and fancies of the young generation of this period. Yet true to Austen there are always serious material concerns pervading the narrative. Marriage prospects, fortune (and lack of it), marital contentment and family dysfunction are key themes. The comedic elements keep this novel from straying too far into the harsh realities of these dark underpinnings; the tone is light and airy. We move through the sometimes seedy world of Bath - full of scoundrels and adventurers - to the austere regime of Northanger Abbey, always in the charming and endearing company of Catherine, who fails to see ill in others, because she herself is so pure-hearted: indeed, this is the quality that the more world-weary and experienced Henry Tilney falls for.

Prior to the new ITV version, there has only been one adaptation of Northanger Abbey - a tele-film aired in 1986 (see Screen Stories review: Firth makes for a 'super-creepy' Austenian hero in Northanger Abbey; the 2nd review), starring Peter Firth as Henry, with a script from Maggie Wadey. This production truly is a horror-show, a failure on every front.

Suffice it to say, ITV's new Northanger Abbey is much, much better - indeed, it is a vast improvement on the dire Mansfield Park (also scripted by Maggie Wadey) we had to suffer last week.

The scriptwriter for this new Northanger Abbey is the hugely capable and experienced 'adaptor laureate' himself, Andrew Davies, and his contribution proves, yet again, that the screenplay in any given TV drama or film is its bedrock, its life-force. With Davies's well-constructed script and surefooted re-casting of Austenian dialogue at its foundations, Northanger Abbey is a production at ease with itself, confident of its pacing, its plotting, its ability to portray credible characterisation.

As one would expect, there are some changes between the source text and adaptation, but in this instance, we never lose a sense of narrative cohesion or find the pace faltering. For example, in the novel, whilst at Northanger Abbey, Catherine visits Henry's parsonage at Woodston, where General Tilney is constantly and pointedly recommending the house as a future marital home. In Davies's screenplay, Woodston is now viewed from afar, whilst Henry and Catherine are riding - it is significant enough that he shows her his home, as by this point the viewer is in no doubt about his feelings for Catherine. Hence it is a convenient edit.

In general, any changes, omissions or deviations are in service here to the plot, ensuring a seamless yet succinct flow. And indeed, Northanger Abbey, of all Austen's novels, does not seem to suffer from being a tele-film, rather than a more drawn-out mini-series, as the plot is never too convoluted - which begs the question why this novel is not a favourite of adaptors.

Davies, of course, has added a fair few of his own distinctive trademark touches too of course, enlivening Catherine's inner life with visual dream-sequences, often of a sexual nature. Catherine's imaginary world is enhanced by her reading works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, a best-seller of her day, by Ann Radcliffe. But Davies also emphasises The Monk, a Gothic tale of terror, seduction and incest, by Matthew Lewis, which is more strongly sexualised than Radcliffe's more ladylike works.

In this production, Catherine's flighty, flirty friend Isabella Thorpe recommends The Monk to Catherine, recalling the Magic Branch which melts walls presaging erotic experiences, and Catherine is soon seen devouring The Monk by candlelight, gripped by its racy contents. Her dreams become more intense than ever: herself as a Gothic heroine in flight from terrifying forces, and the strongly sexual element of The Monk ensures that there is an erotic charge to her dreams and fantasies. In particular, Catherine is seen to indulge in a fantasy while bathing. The walls, adorned with floral wallpaper, writhe and melt into a sylvan woodland scene where Henry Tilney, notably in full parson's uniform, steps forth, beckoning her from the bath, naked. He admires her naked form, calling her 'God's creation'- but somehow his pious words only serve to highlight the very unholiness of her thoughts.

Of course a nice young girl like Catherine Morland, or even the capricious Isabella Thorpe, would not have been reading The Monk - it was far too saucy. But it is an interesting and fitting addition in this modern adaptation, as it allows Davies to indulge playfully in Catherine's imaginary world, to enliven her erotic awakening, within the spirit of the novel's focus on the perils of the Romantic Gothic genre and its deleterious effects on impressionable young women.

In true Davies' style too, we have an unseen 'romantic' encounter, now brought to life - much as he did with Lydia and Wickham in his 1995 Pride and Prejudice -- as we are allowed to witness Isabella Thorpe, in lonely post-coital discontent in bed, asking Captain Frederick Tilney if they are now engaged. His brusque response is callous, cold. Despite her follies, which are numerous and grating, an iota of sympathy is even elicited here for foolish young Isabella.

A narratorial voice-over is used as a framing-device in this production, swiftly introducing viewers to Catherine from her baptism through to her growing into a rollicking, pretty teenager, ripe for her adventures as a 'heroine'. After all, as the dry, witty voice (in all likelihood supposed to be Austen herself) tells us: 'When a young lady is to be a heroine, something must and will happen to throw adventure in her way.' Catherine is thus launched into the adult world of Bath with her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, as chaperones. The tele-film closes too with this narratorial voice, offering a neat summation of events - Catherine's happy marriage and entrance into motherhood, and the boost in good fortune for Eleanor Tilney and her newly titled and wealthy husband. Normally I dislike a voice-over framing-device, but it works well here.

Aesthetically this production is serviceable if not sparkling. There is something a little muddied and yellow in the cinematography - it lacks pristine sharpness. Certainly these two ITV Austen events have not shared the high quality production values, innovative cinematography and clarity of aesthetic vision enjoyed by recent BBC period dramas such as Bleak House and even Jane Eyre. Perhaps Persuasion will be an improvement on this front next week. Is it a question of budget, of experience and expertise, of the willingness to take risks without compromising the period 'feel' of a production? Similarly, musical scoring in this production is fairly predictable and uninspiring but never actually jarring. In terms of direction too, Jon Jones is competent here, but never exciting. (I felt much the same about his BBC adaptation of Robert Harris's Archangel too).

There has been mild controversy about the locations chosen for this Northanger Abbey. Although much of the action takes place in fashionable Bath, here it is Dublin, with its Georgian architecture, which acts as a stand-in - reportedly because Ireland was a cheaper shooting location. Does Northanger Abbey need Bath to truly bring it to life? Probably not, but it might have been nice. The production notably steers clear of tell-tale wide-lens establishment shots, for those who might recognise the many references to real world locations in the script (and obviously to a greater extent in the novel itself).

As for General Tilney's Northanger Abbey itself, this is not an abbey but a hulking Gothic castle (Dublin Castle no less) complete with Disneyland turrets. It's all a little overblown. And of course, the tele-film - as the novel - indulges in its moments of pathetic phallacy. Timely thunder-storms, flashes of lightening, rain storms all contribute to the brooding, threatening atmosphere of Northanger Abbey. It's all delightfully silly. More fitting are the gentle, sunny scenes at Fullerton, the Morland home, with an ivy-clad parsonage (of very grand proportions it must be said) while Henry's parsonage is a fine, grey-stone house, with a thoroughly respectable air of modest solidity.

Acting performances throughout are steady, if not scintillating. Felicity Jones, who plays Catherine Morland, will be a big star I'm certain. Not because of her immense acting talents, although she is fine in this department, but because she is something of a ‘hottie’ in a sort of nubile, Leslie Carron-as-Gigi kind of way with large, soulful eyes and bee-sting lips pouting prettily in the manner of a perpetually surprised bunny rabbit. At first I felt she was a little too knowing to be a naieve young heroine, unexperienced in the wicked ways of the world. But here, a little strangely, she seems to become increasingly artless and insecure as the action progresses, to the point where our sympathies are truly engaged with her by the time she is evicted cruelly from Northanger Abbey. She firmly believes she is being punished for her own silly fancies, and even deserves such harsh treatment. She never suspects the awful truth, that General Tilney learns she is not a wealthy heiress (as he had been falsely told by Thorpe) and therefore sees her as a fortune-hunting adventuress. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

As for Henry Tilney, the man Catherine loves and eventually marries. He is played here by JJ Feild with charm, wit and warm tenderness towards young Catherine, whose innocence he cherishes. I actually like JJ Feild's Henry Tilney more than Austen's - although I do like Austen's hero a great deal too.

In truth I have mixed feelings towards Henry Tilney as a Romantic hero. On the one hand he is witty, urbane, the kind of guy who could be tremendous fun. You could imagine a modern-day Henry as great company, engaging in sexy, stimulating banter, laced with a healthy dose of bitchiness. To my mind, he would make a great match for a 'mature' and witty woman. But in Northanger Abbey he has been paired with an adorable, innocent child-woman, who I occasionally feel has strayed into the wrong love story. For me, the whole affair has a slight whiff of ‘cradle-snatching’ – which doesn’t reflect particularly well on our dear Henry. I fear poor Catherine will become hectored and lectured into sullen silence, rather than mentored into maturity, which is what Austen would rather have us believe here I feel. This does not feel like a union of equals, and in a postfeminist age, equality of mind is surely a pre-requisite for ideal love. (Again, is this why Pride and Prejudice is so popular?)

I can't help but slightly resent Henry's paternalistic upbraiding of Catherine for her (granted) very foolish notions about his father's murdering his mother. He is justified, of course. But it is the momentuous importance given to the incident in the heroine's life which riles me a little. For Catherine, Henry's anger is a turning point when she sees that the realities of experience - as explained to her by Henry earlier - are more frightening and more serious than any novel, and not to be treated as trifles. It is the crux of her maturation plot - much as poor Emma Woodhouse is later reduced to tears by her moral mentor Mr Knightley, after her rudeness to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In both cases the romantic hero is accorded a hugely vital role in shaping the heroine's character (and suitability for marriage). But there is something a little patronising and self-satisfied in these examples of male moral superiority, reining in the feminine excesses of the women they hope to wed. I guess then my quibble here is actually less with Henry Tilney (or even Mr Knightley), but with Austen's deployment of these characters as subtle Pygmalions.

JJ Feild's Henry is always saved by an impish, boyish charm. He is perceptive, intelligent, and of course, as Mrs Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel in her best ever performance) constantly tells us, he 'understands muslins.' Certainly he has a 'feminine' side, but JJ Feild's Tilney is tough too, judging by his instant dismissal of two young men from their seats at the Assembly dance, to enable Catherine and Mrs Allen to sit down. There is also something very self-aware throughout his performance, perhaps something hurt and vulnerable too. He envies Catherine's happy childhood, her resultant purity of thought and motive. There is a lonely little boy behind his glib, witty persona, although we have sadly lost some of his sparkling wit and cleverness in the transition from text to screen. But not so much as to lose the 'essence' of Henry Tilney, which JJ Feild has captured strongly here.

Here, Henry and Catherine's romance is sweet, endearing. He describes the bovine, pushy John Thorpe, (William Beck), who is chasing Catherine's affections with brazen gusto, as his 'rival' and warns Catherine he is not best-equipped to offer his opinion on Thorpe, thus ensuring his admiration for her is always clear cut. Indeed, their mutual appreciation is always obvious, which made me wonder why he did not propose to her at Northanger Abbey, most especially considering his father is so keen to forge a match between them (whilst he still believes her to be filthy rich). Certainly there is also some sexual attraction between Catherine and Henry, particularly displayed when he wipes her cheek clean after riding. And once he has ditched his irksome father and finally proposed to Catherine at Fullerton, the couple's obligatory kiss (for the satisfaction of a modern TV audience) is definitely ardent, almost raunchy, compared to most period dramas. Perhaps it is the corollary of sweet little Catherine's pent-up fantasy world finally bubbling to the fore, as she literally pushes Henry backwards into a hedge with the force of her passion. It is little surprise that our next shot of the happy couple is post-marriage, of course, and holding a baby ...

Aside from the central couple, there are some strong supporting performances. Carey Mulligan is very good as the flirtatious Isabella. She not only flirts with all the men in Bath, but even, it seems, with the male viewers, as at one point, she is alone with Catherine, both in their under-garments, cleavages busting out of their corsets and long hair wild, undone. 'What would men think if they saw us now?' she giggles knowingly. (Another Davies 'touch'). Mulligan captures beautifully Isabella's shallow, vapid nature, her reliance on her sexuality above all - although we cannot forget this is a girl without fortune, possibly raised to silliness, as perhaps shown by her mother's downcast face, accompanying her daughter's arch, brittle manner, when news comes that James Morland (Catherine's brother) is not the wealthy marriage prospect the Thorpes had hoped for. And yet Isabella is a victim too, as shown by Captain Tilney's caddish 'use' of her. Eleanor Tilney, (Catherine Walker), assures Catherine, in her slow, sage manner, that Isabella is the type to recover from such disappointments - but one wonders about the real vulnerability of Isabella's situation, most particularly as she does not have the wit and intelligence to truly play the game, and survive intact.

Out of the remaining minor characters, the Allens (Desmond Barrit and Sylvestra Le Touzel) make for a fine comedic pairing, and the Morland family are pleasantly characterised. Mark Dymond makes for a suitably sly Captain Frederick Tilney, and his father, the sinister General, is played, a little less successfully perhaps, with sombre froideur by Liam Cunningham.

Overall this was an enjoyable piece, far superior to ITV's Jane Austen Season opener Mansfield Park. This is not a vintage Austen adaptation, in being a little stale aesthetically and slightly unimaginative in terms of direction. Locations, musical scoring, costumes are serviceable, if not astounding. Acting is pretty strong throughout, while never super standout, aided by a fluent, flowing and neatly plotted script. But the tele-film has a quiet, winning charm, and of course, it is hugely refreshing to see a new version of Austen's delightful, yet least-read and least-adapted work.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

And another one bites the dust ...

... Or at least it feels that way. Party Animals, penned by Ben Richards, concluded last night, amidst minimal fanfare, which has been the way with this under-sung TV drama. I hope it gets a second series, although with only 1.2m viewers last night, I'm not hopeful.

This was yet another top quality BBC drama which I fear will bite the dust. We recently had it confirmed that the marvellous Lilies, written by the acclaimed and talented Heidi Thomas, has been prematurely given the chop - reportedly because it didn't attract the "right sort" of viewer and because the BBC wants to make way for 'New Drama' (go figure). Last year we had the highly entertaining Sally Wainwright drama The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, which the BBC canned because of lacklustre ratings.

In both cases, the series closed with loose ends, and a major cliffhanger in the case of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard - and a lot of fans have thus demanded resolution, most especially in the case of Lilies. The BBC Lilies web site has been literally inundated with hundreds of heartfelt demands for a second series - all ignored. Obviously demands from the wrong sort of audience fall on deaf ears at the BBC which is increasingly (and worryingly) preoccupied with ratings it seems, and facing off ITV - which is not why we pay the BBC vast sums of money via our license fees. I honestly believe the BBC never intended to renew Lilies, based on the shoddy promotion and poor scheduling the show received. Perhaps it wasn't seen as cool and 'yoof' enough to share the same BBC branding as the 'hallowed' likes of Doctor Who, Torchwood and the inexecrable Robin Hood. Perhaps if Lilies had been set in a hospital, and starred yet another bleedin' police detective with slightly maverick tendencies and a drink problem, as seems to dominate British TV output these days, it would have stood a better chance.

Party Animals suffered a similar fate to Lilies in the sense that advertising for the show was minimal. Yes, ratings have been poor, but little has been done to boost them. This was a quality drama with some very strong acting performances - this blogger has already raved Andrew Buchan, and deservedly so. Such a fine actor! And like many admirers of the show no doubt, I'm dying to know if Scott and Ashika are ever going to put aside their 'party' differences and kiss and make up.

If anyone learns of Party Animal's fate in the hands of the BBC commissioners, don't hesitate to tell - I'm eager to know, and hope that the news is good. The BBC simply can't keep dropping it's quality dramas, leaving us with the dross and drivel of so much of the populist formulaic crap currently being foisted onto our TV screens.

Monday, March 19, 2007

ITV's Mansfield Park is stodgy fare, lacking style or substance

ITV’s Mansfield Park made for a very dull Sunday evening’s viewing. Maggie Wadey’s script was charmless and uninspiring, displaying zero critical edge, while Iain B Macdonald’s direction lacked finesse or imagination. Despite Macdonald’s penchant for hand-held camera-work and sudden bursts of energy, this filmic experience was lifeless, flat and one-paced. This was a shamefully lazy treatment of one of Austen’s darkest, most menacing and intriguing works. Mansfield Park describes a world fraught with moral and material dangers for poor Fanny Price, both inside and outside of her uncle’s estate.

Here too, Austen establishes a genuine dichotomy between opposing social ideologies. As Claire Tomalin succinctly puts it: ‘Mansfield Park … sets up an opposition between someone with strongly held religious and moral principles, who will not compromise them for any reason, will not consider a marriage that is not based on true feeling rather than opportunism, and is revolted by sexual immorality [Fanny Price]; and a group of worldly, highly cultivated, entertaining and well-to-do young people who pursue pleasure without regard for religious or moral principles.’ [Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, 2000, p. 276]

In this novel, Austen has also invoked the potential for real human cruelty with a powerful cast of characters, amongst whom we have the likes of Mrs Norris, one of the greatest villains of literature. She is characterised by meanness, officiousness and sycophancy towards the powerful, and bullying of anyone she perceives to be in her power. She positively revels in Fanny’s lowly status. Meanwhile Lady Bertram is a supreme example of egoistic indolence and sloth, Sir Thomas Bertram is a morally dubious, authoritarian patriarch who himself must be 're-educated,'Tom Bertram is a selfish wastrel, his sisters Maria and Julia are vain and vapid, while his brother Edmund is a bloodless prig, with a highly developed capacity for romantic self-delusion.

Amidst this happy family we have the external ‘interlopers’ who threaten the stability and order of rule at Mansfield Park. Fanny Price, of course, is the timid yet steely bastion of moral propriety, who is at the heart of the story, but the Crawford siblings, Mary and Henry, pose the most interesting and dynamic challenge, effectively driving the narrative forwards.

The ITV Mansfield Park pays passing lip service to these gloriously rich and involving characterisations. This is not simply the fault of cramming a fat novel into a slim tele-film format, as is so often the defence of failed adaptation. It is because the script, the direction, and even in some cases, the cast, fail to breath life into these characters and narrative.

Billie Piper’s Fanny Price will no doubt be much discussed by critics and viewers. Her performance was competent if a little bland. No, she is not Austen’s Fanny. She runs amok, hair unkempt, a vision of blooming health and vigour far removed from Austen’s sickly heroine. But this alteration is hardly surprising, and I would argue, quite necessary, to enliven Austen’s Fanny in her transition from text to screen. Fanny has to become a more active protagonist to engage our interest. Even so, Piper’s Fanny did not particularly grab and hold my attention.

Fanny is in love with her cousin Edmund, played here by Blake Ritson, giving a pretty polished performance, truer to Austen’s novel in tone and manner. Which is probably why I couldn’t stand him - Edmund being for me, one of Austen’s most insufferably boring romantic heroes. Ritson had the look of a sleek, glossy blackbird with large, soulful, red-rimmed eyes, ultimately worn through by his love for what he deems a worthless woman (Mary Crawford). By the end of the tele-film, he wore a slightly haunted expression, and had become jumpy and panicked – so emotionally unbalanced, in fact, that he fell head over heels in love with Fanny for suggesting the usage of ‘purple’ over maroon thread to her Aunt. His sudden romantic epiphany at this moment provided me with the best and loudest laugh of the evening.

His brother Tom was seriously under-used, considering he was being played by the delectable James D’Arcy. On the plus side, we did cadge a prolonged glimpse of D’Arcy’s bare chest, the downside being that it was covered in large, slimy medicinal leeches at the time, supposedly to help drain away his alcohol-induced fever.

Douglas Hodge made for a fine enough Sir Thomas Bertram, for what was a remarkably conservative interpretation of the baronet, in view of his nefarious ‘business’ interests. Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) was far too chirpy and perceptive, while the viciously venomous Mrs Norris was thoroughly de-clawed and de-toxed to the point of insipid by Maggie O’Neill here.

Michelle Ryan’s Maria Bertram was much highlighted in previews, due to her celebrity appeal as ex-Zoe Slater from Eastenders. Frankly, she might as well have posted in her photograph for this performance, rather than bother to show up, for all the impact she made here, in what is a crucial role in terms of plot development and the elucidation of Austen’s key themes, ideas and arguments. But then again, as there were no key themes, ideas or arguments in play in this adaptation, perhaps Maria’s cardboard cut-out character suffices perfectly well. All Michelle was required to do, it seemed, was to look pretty and alluring, which clearly comes very easily to her. But we had no sense of Maria's fierce greedy egoism, her driving ambition, her sexual competing, or indeed her tragic social imprisonment – key factors in Austen’s text.

As for Catherine Steadman as Julia, I rather liked her, but on reflection this might have been because her presence was so utterly negligible amidst this tripe, that I cannot now for the life of me even recall her face.

Fanny’s brother William (Joseph Morgan) had a small part to play in this adaptation – which was quite a relief actually, as he seemed remarkably irritating, only just saved by a hysterically silly ‘Seaman’s’ dance, performed at Fanny’s birthday picnic.

As for the Crawfords. This pair lacked the genuine charm and allure that Austen’s text requires of them. They must represent a very real and exciting threat, an alternative moral universe for Fanny and Edmund. But here, Joseph Beattie’s Henry Crawford was a pudding-faced fellow with floppy hair, failing to emanate even an iota of Henry’s magnetism and sexual charisma – a feat the original Henry achieves, in spite of his lack of conventional good looks.

Mary Crawford, one of Austen’s most beguiling inventions, was played here by stunning Hayley Atwell, who toiled valiantly onwards with a limp and lifeless script, but she failed to delight. Most annoying, her costumes were almost always red, (or reddish), graduating to moody black by the end, with dangly red earrings. Such a tired old cliché. Clearly the red represented her danger, her passion, her sexuality – all those well-worn cinematic tropes. Meanwhile sweet little Fanny swanned around in pretty pale blues and wholesome colours. A delicate feminine contrast to Mary’s overtly coloured costumes.

One thing that puzzled me was the Crawfords’ seeming lack of a home of their own, as we never saw the parsonage. There they were, forever roaming the grounds of Mansfield Park, bitching about its occupants, but we never saw where they were walking to. Were they just circling aimlessly, in an endless Stygian purgatory? Were they perhaps camping out in Sir Bertram’s hedgerows? Was there really a world beyond Mansfield Park? Were they all trapped in their own Mansfield Park time-space continuum?

It certainly felt that way. Indeed, the lack of extra locations began to make me feel clostraphobic, even queasy – particularly that nasty pink drawing room. Plus, by excising all external environments, (perhaps as a budget-saving device), we lost some key narrative sequences, most particularly Fanny’s punishing exile to Portsmouth, in retaliation for refusing Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. In such a way, we never saw the grime, hardship and squalor of her family’s life in contrast to the smooth luxuries of Mansfield Park. Fanny’s thinking is strongly influenced by this material disparity. And our awareness of socio-economic and class distinction in Regency Britain is sharply focused by these scenes too, which is refreshing and unusual in the Austen canon.

But this was far too interesting to be included in this adaptation. So instead we had to make do with Fanny’s languishing alone and bored in a vast and splendid mansion with sumptuous gardens, whilst the Bertram family peeled off in their separate directions, going to places we were never allowed to see. Billie Piper puffed out her lips bravely, and we tried very, very hard to feel her misery, amidst such glorious surroundings and sweet tranquillity.

The simple truth is some omissions, some deviations from text to screen really do matter. The plot loses dramatic momentum. Characters lose credibility. And this was a glaring example, even though I’m the last person, believe me, to scrutinise adaptations with pursed lips, pen poised, pedantically cross-referencing a long checklist of essential scenes and lines from the original with the filmic version, tutt-tutting when this bit or that bit has been omitted or changed by the adaptor.

No. I want to be entertained, stimulated, to be swept up in the whole filmic experience. This is what I want foremost. And that means we need, above all, narrative coherence and dynamism, and a sense of truth in the portrayal of characters. If an adaptation fails in this regard, then, quite simply, it has failed to make the transition from text to screen – as is the case with this version of Mansfield Park, which was frankly turgid, lacking suspense or style.

It is also hard to believe that such a critically vacuous version of Mansfield Park has been produced in this particular year when we are celebrating the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, which, in the light of postcolonial discourses is a very live issue in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Esteemed postcolonial critics such as Edward Said have identified Mansfield Park as a key text in displaying the reliance of English society and wealth on Imperial adventures and the pernicious legacy of the slave trade. We also know that Austen herself opposed slavery and read Thomas Clarkson, a chief proponent for abolition, who wrote The Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1808. Indeed, Mansfield Park itself might well be named after the Mansfield Agreement (1772) which was ushered in by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, concerning James Somerset, a black slave brought to England. A question was raised regarding Somerset’s status. Could he still be owned by his master on English soil? A ruling was enforced in Somerset’s favour: ‘It was resolved that England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in … the moment they put their feet on English ground they are free.’ Jane Austen actually met Lord Mansfield’s niece at the home of her brother Edward Knight, and in view of her usage of the name Mansfield, surely it cannot then be a further coincidence, that in the novel, Fanny Price constantly craves clean, fresh air, ‘the free air and liberty of the country.’

In my opinion this ITV adaptation badly misses a trick. Rather than enhance the potential for a relevant and timely postcolonial interpretation of the novel, excepting a couple of very small references (including Sir Thomas’s walking cane with its decorative carved black slave head), the producers have opted instead for powder-puff pastiche. Was it fear of alienating their audience with what could be deemed as an overtly politicised approach? Or simply uninspired filmmaking?

Personally, I believe it was the latter.

This was Adaptation by Numbers, approached by adaptors with absolutely nothing interesting to say whatsoever about Austen’s Mansfield Park, motivated mainly by the broadcaster’s desire to play ‘safe’ and accrue some easily digestible Cultural Capital in the face of the BBC’s prestigious reputation in this department. Adaptation can be exciting and challenging. It is a tribute not a snub to an author – even a well-loved and revered one like Austen – when adaptors reinterpret, reinvent, and challenge the original text. They enter into a genuine interactive dialogue with that text which actually serves to keep a text alive and fresh and consistently relevant – even if the resultant reading of that text courts controversy or fails to delight filmically. At least there is an effort to actually ‘adapt’.

Indeed, such an effort is entirely and honourably necessary, simply because novels and films are entirely different mediums, behaving in completely different ways, and our consumption of them differs too. Therefore a truly successful filmic adaptation is a pretty remarkable achievement, although often the best adaptations cannot stay ‘faithful’ to the source text, mainly deriving inspiration and shape from the original. However, even those adaptations that purport to be ‘literary’, with pretensions to fidelity, can never stay ‘true’ – and nor should they. If a viewer wants to ‘see’ an entire book on screen, far better to re-read the novel and then summon up one’s own powers of imagination. It’s a less frustrating and more honest exercise all round. Better to simply kick back and enjoy a film or TV drama for what it is.

My frustration with the ITV’s Mansfield Park is I couldn’t even do this, despite its being a piece of harmless heritage fluff, because I had a huge emotional disconnect with these characters. Their relationships felt detached, staged and untrue. Dialogue felt wooden and forced. Stage directions lacked energy and verve. And, importantly perhaps, there was minimal erotic zing between Fanny and Edmund – which in truth adheres more closely to the source text, but let’s face it, makes for very dull television. There were further functional elements at fault here. The credits and signage were irritatingly twee and floral. And the musical scoring was strangely intrusive and entirely grating. Plus, I felt I was suffocating in the richly palatial confines of Mansfield Park. I craved fresh air, I craved liberty, I even craved the ad breaks, and I was so very relieved when the final credits rolled.

Next week I will be reviewing ITV’s Northanger Abbey, for which I have much higher hopes already.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

'This is not a very promising beginning' ... So true, Mrs Norris, so true

So ITV's Jane Austen season kicked off tonight with an airing of Mansfield Park, starring the toothsomely pretty personage of Billie Piper as Fanny Price.

However, to quote Mrs Norris from the tele-film, 'This is not a very promising beginning', in my humble opinion - of which I will give lots more tomorrow, once I have run through my notes and got some sleep.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Party Animals proves to be a beast of the show

I realise this might sound like sacriliege, but I'm already half-sick of the ITV Austen Season, set to launch next Sunday (18th). I'm fiendishly into TV 'originals' right now. A quick scan of my blog in recent weeks reveals how much I loved the BBC's Lilies - well, another BBC series, Party Animals, is also getting a big thumbs up from me too. This little-promoted, poorly scheduled BBC 2 drama (Weds, 9.00pm) about young 'politicos' in Westminster Village, was a little bit of a slow starter, but has graduated to one of my favourite TV series of all time. This is in no small part because of the staggeringly good acting performances: Andrew Buchan as Scott, a world-weary lobbyist, is simply fantastic - one of the best young actors I have ever seen. Also good is Matt Smith as his idealistic brother Danny - a great improvement here on Smith's risible cockney chappie 'Jim' in the dire Ruby in the Smoke adaptation, aired on the BBC over Christmas.

For the record that starred Billie Piper, as a woefully miscast Victorian lass, and it looks likely that Piper has been badly drawn again in next week's Mansfield Park, if early previews are anything to go by. Grab a gander at BBC's Newsnight Review programme (broadcast last Friday) for a unanimous thumbs down for ITV's Mansfield Park, which the reviewers felt had been targeted at teenagers. So all the darkness and subtlety of Austen's original sounds to have been dashed in the race for ratings ... except if Mansfield Park flops (and I fear it might) then this augurs poorly for the remainder of the season - Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (in that order). The Newsnight reviewers liked Northanger Abbey as much as they disliked Mansfield Park, so perhaps that's more promising. I rather liked the clip they showed of Catherine Morland indulging in a secret Gothic-inspired erotic fantasy whilst bathing ... very Andrew Davies, and most unlike Jane Austen. But I'm not one for 'fidelity' for fidelity's sake. Better just make a darned good film - and Davies does have a singular knack for sexing up his classics, so I can hardly pretend surprise that he has engineered sweet, innocent little Catherine Morland stepping naked from a bath into the arms of Henry Tilney. I kind of admire his cheek. And I'm always a sucker for a surreal dream-sequence - whatever the genre ...

Back to Party Animals. This has been a superb series and it is truly sad that it is unlikely, with risible ratings last Wednesday of just ONE MILLION, to secure a second series. This is so frustrating and begs the question how this could happen. Two reasons: a) the BBC has cocked-up big time with poor promotion and scheduling and b) the Great British Public never tuned in because it is hard to get excited about a show you've never heard of. OK it might also be because the political underpinnings of the programme left them stone-cold ... and opening reviews were a little less than fantastic. Such a shame because this show is a true grower. It's greatest flaw is its heroine Ashika (Shelley Conn), who is almost too perfect, an 'Ashika-Sue' if you will. Even so, she is highly likeable. Less likeable but fantastically acted is devilishly clever but emotionally dishevelled (and drunk) Home Office minister Jo Portman (Raquel Cassidy). I won't go into plot details in the hope that this series gets a repeat sometime soon. Suffice to say, it is excellent viewing, undersung by a BBC which seems hellbent on promoting dire dull drivel, the likes of Castaway and Casualty.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fanny not sent to Portsmouth in new Mansfield Park adaptation

Radio Times online ( is now featuring a billing notice for Mansfield Park, to air on ITV on March 18th, 9pm-11pm.

Featured below are a few snippets from the text which warrant mentioning:

A lively adaptation of the Jane Austen classic for ITV1, starring Billie Piper. .... Although she's aware of her debt of gratitude towards her aunt and uncle fromthe start, Fanny struggles to adjust to aristocratic protocol and the daily reminders of her inferiority to her relatives. ....

'Aristocratic' protocol is an interesting take on life at Mansfield Park.

.... notably because Fanny refuses the 'charms' of Henry Crawford, in this production -

'As punishment Fanny is left in solitude at Mansfield. Fanny now deeply misses Edmund and anxiously waits for news that he has proposed to Mary. Before long the family arrive home with Tom, who has caught pneumonia after over indulgence.'

OK, here is our first sign of a major change between source text and film. Fanny stays alone at Mansfield Park rather than being sent away to Portsmouth and her own, poor family, as a punishment for refusing Henry Crawford. Presumably this was for budget reasons, ensuring the shoot was more or less focused on Newby Hall (Mansfield Park). But this might mean we have lost William Price (her brother), Susan Price (sister), and of course, the degradations of life away from the luxuries at Mansfield Park. And how then does Henry try to win her over?? Seems strange. Fanny is merely left to pine it seems ... while Henry gets on with seducing Maria. Which also makes me wonder - presuming Fanny is not seen pining away for too long, which would be awfully dull - this film must make up a lot time ELSEWHERE, covering other aspects of the novel. What then? Rozema's screenplay managed to cover Portsmouth and Henry's extended courtship - and that was film-length also.

And after much soul-searching and abominable rudeness from Mary Crawford ...

'Edmund is horrified and tells Mary that the woman he thought he loved never existed. Finally his eyes are opened and he realises that he's been in love with Fanny all along.'

I wish I could get more excited about this production. Something in the publicity shots has left me cold. Not sure if it's Billie herself. Or perhaps Blake Ritson, who seems too shiny eyed and bushy-tailed ... like a gleaming blackbird (and I am true devotee of Jonny Lee Miller's 'sensitive' Edmund in Rozema's 1999 Mansfield Park - so it's going to be tough for Ritson to win me over).

ITV Austen Season schedule

Austenblog has announced the transmission dates for the upcoming ITV Austen Season -

Mansfield Park 18th March
Northanger Abbey 25th March
Persuasion 1st April
Emma (1997-rerun)8th April

The media/PR blitz is now underway for these films - most especially for Persuasion, which seems to be garnering most buzz (especially Rupert Penry-Jones).

Lucky for ITV, Becoming Jane, the cinema movie starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, in what is clearly a very made-up biopic about Jane Austen - but very pretty nevertheless, based on reports thus far - is also on the media-go-round. Jane Austen's 'brand values' appear to be sky rocketing, amidst all this frenzied media coverage.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Why the BBC's Lilies deserves a second series

I'm in danger of sounding like a broken record, but now that the BBC series Lilies has concluded, I feel I have to share some parting thoughts on what became for me, an increasingly involving and important British TV drama.

First up, what made Lilies so refreshing? The show featured mainly unknown actors (I'd seen Leanne Rowe in Oliver Twist, but that was about it) who all performed magnificently. They made those characters their own - and what a team of characters Heidi Thomas, the scriptwriter, had created. I found myself caring for each and everyone, and looking forward to their future lives ... a prospect only to be made possible if the BBC commissions a second series of course.

Second, here was a BBC period drama which did not simply wallow in wistful nostalgia, offering us a bucolic view of English countryside, grand houses and the lives of the rich and titled. Instead, Lilies served us up a thick, meaty slice of urban, working class history, focusing on a comparatively neglected period - 1920/21, a time of post WWI-truama, when modernity, representing a true break from nineteenth century and fin-de siecle cultural values was gradually creeping into the everyday. Yet despite the breaking away from the past, many of the values, phobias and fears of that past, still predominated.

Living on the cusp of change was an uneasy experience for most, no more so than in tight-knit working-class communities, as typified in Lilies - a community where Ruby Moss, one of the most outspoken of the three sisters who are the heart of this TV drama explains, a woman wouldn't be seen dead without her corset - even though it was increasingly apparent that the corset not only damaged the female body, but acted as a restrictive device in terms of how she operated as a free individual within society.

Third, and this is surely important in terms of the BBC's license remit, Lilies was also set in Liverpool - Garston in particular - hence we had a fascinating insight into the rich and engaging history of that particular city. How refreshing not to have yet another London-based tale.

There was also a subtle but exciting subversive edge to much of this series too. We were plummeted into the period's social history - and some weighty topics such as female emancipation, then-illegal homosexuality, and eugenics were introduced seamlessly and skillfully into the narrative - but there was also a vital, healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism in play. So we applauded the Garston community for deceiving the 'Tallyman', whose job it was to ensure that housing wasn't overcrowded, thus facilitating the spread of contagious diseases. We also bridled at the rank hypocrisies and inhumanity of the Catholic Church, as the organisation turned the screws on Father Melia, sending him into exile at the end of the series for having feelings for Iris, but also, and more worryingly, because he cared for orphaned, ailing children on church property, and because he socialised with his parishioners. Similarly, Iris's plans to devote her life to God as a nun came at a price - 300 guineas and a pair of silver candlesticks - news which dinted any hopes she had of taking orders.

This twist in the portrayal of the church was a clever reveal, because up to that point we had assumed Father Melia's kind humanity was representative of the church he worked for (and because of changed modern attitudes), so the final bearing down of the church on him was slightly shocking, even unseemly, delivered by a smarmy, smirking Canon, coolly smoking a cigarette, as he elaborated Father Melia's crimes and ultimate 'fate.'

Then there was the core narrative itself, focusing on the three Moss sisters. Here was a female-centric world - albeit ruled to some degree by the emotional vagaries of their 'Dadda' = and it was interesting and unusual, that the series concluded with the MALES having to make major emotional and personal sacrifices.

As mentioned earlier, Father Melia makes a notable sacrifice. The pain in his eyes is most striking when he is instructed to leave his parish for a long and indeterminate retreat in Ireland. What makes his sacrifice all the more endearing, is that he protects Iris throughout - justifably of course, as their mutual feelings have constantly been kept in check, although one suspects his feelings here are the stronger. But it is Iris who naievely instigates the punishment meted out to Father Melia, as she writes to the bishop to request he act as a referee for her application to a convent, as her priest has refused to do so. Father Melia is unwilling to support Iris's desire to become a nun as he rightly detects her ongoing confusion and truama after a shockingly short and painful marriage early on in the series. But ultimately Father Melia proves to be a true romantic hero because he recognises his fate and succumbs to it, to protect Iris. He now knows the true nature of the monolithic, inhuman organisation he is tethered to, and one hopes he can move away from the Church, continuing his good works within the community, in a second series.

Dadda also sacrifices his chance for love and happiness with the sweet Miss Bird, purely to appease his daughters, who are still grief-stricken at their mother's sad death some years earlier.

His son Billy is making a daily sacrifice, we realise, in having to conceal his true nature, his homosexuality, at a time when loving a man was a criminal offence.

Dear Frank Gadney has seemingly sacrificed hopes of future romantic happiness by adhering to his passionate love for May - who has no appearance of ever loving him in return, despite her difficulties as a single mother. It would be interesting in a subsequent storyline to see Frank pursued by another romantic interest. How would May react?

Even Mr Brazendale, described by Ruby as a class A 'louse', was forced to make a conclusive emotional sacrifice at the close of the series, as his tragically unstable wife attempts to commit suicide. Any hopes he might have harboured of reuniting with May and their child are overwhelmed in that instant by a call to duty - the duty of spousal care, for a woman who has clearly lost her mind in grief and longing for a baby of her own.

Joseph the butcher, now involved romantically with Ruby, is also a character who can further evolve, most especially with regard to his ardent interest in Communism and social justice.

It is interesting therefore, that although the narratives centred on the three heroines are paramount, there is huge potential too in the supporting male cast.

Clearly numerous open questions remain, which strongly suggest the need for a second series:

Will May cope with her status as a single mother, which at that time, entailed social ostracism? Will she recover from her brush with the Brazendales, and will she continue to love the father of her child? What will happen between herself and the long-suffering, long-loving Frank?

How will Iris respond to a world where she was rejected by the Church for being too poor? And how will she cope without Father Melia - or indeed, how will she cope with his return (a more interesting scenario), most especially if she becomes romantically linked elsewhere? Or perhaps, if he elects to leave the Church, (not unfeasible in the circumstances), how would she react, as this scenario could present Iris with a minefield of awkward moral choices?

Will Ruby marry her Austrian butcher, and with her feisty, outspoken nature, might she become a political force to be reckoned with? Or might that relationship become too combustible?

As for brother Billy, there is the permanently festering issue of his homosexuality to contend with, as he is unfairly barred from expressing his sexual preference by society at large.

And, of course, how will the sisters respond to Dadda, should he re-ignite his love affair with Miss Bird, or indeed, simply move on from the beloved memory of his deceased wife in some other capacity? Indeed, the Moss Family still needs to come to terms with its grief for the absent mother .... And, all important, can Dadda stay off the booze?

And finally, baby Victor ... what will be the ramifications within the Moss household, of raising May's child?

Overall, this was one of the best original period dramas I have seen on TV. I hope we get a second series - I fear we won't, largely because the BBC poorly mishandled its promotion and scheduling. I will be annoyed with the BBC for ignoring the fact that this is a good value return for our license fee monies. Not only does Lilies make for strong, compelling TV drama, it is also socially-aware and even informative, brightly illuminating an often-forgotten period of our history.

But most important of all, Heidi Thomas the screenwriter, has created an assembly of heart-felt, emotionally engaging, fully-rounded characters, producing that rare magical alchemy, when the characters genuinely seem to take on a life of their own - to exist beyond the confines of the page or the TV screen. All too often, novels and textual narratives are plundered in the desperate search for those indefinable characters who shine with an essence, a reality, who truly reach out and touch audiences and readers alike. While I am a fan of Adaptation, it is hugely exciting to come across a fresh, original set of characters, vividly drawn and realised, who demonstrate enormous potential for further growth.

The BBC badly bungled Lilies; now they should make amends and reward the show with a second series - and this time, schedule it for a Sunday night, which was the original intention - to ensure that this dynamic, absorbing drama receives the viewers and plaudits it so richly deserves.

Cast - Lilies 2007: (World Productions/BBC Northern Ireland)
Catherine Tyldesley - Iris Moss
Kerrie Hayes - Ruby Moss
Leanne Rowe - May Moss
Scot Williams - Father Melia
Brian McCardie - Dadda Moss
Daniel Rigby - Billy Moss
Stephen Moyer - Mr. Brazendale
Iain McKee - Frank Gadney
Jennifer Hennessy - Mrs. Brazendale

Executive Producers - Tony Garnett, Heidi Thomas
Producer - Chrissy Skinns