Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Downs than Ups with BBC's Fanny Hill

I was genuinely pleased to see that the BBC were producing an adaptation of John Cleland’s bawdy 18th century novel, Fanny Hill. It made for a refreshing change from the typical cycle of Austen, Dickens and Bronte, which dominates the ‘classic’ text-to-screen adaptation genre on British TV.

This two-parter, commissioned specially for BBC 4, was scripted by the illustrious Andrew Davies – probably the best candidate to handle the risqué subject matter in view of his instinctual sensualisation of classic works – and was directed by James Hawes. Newcomer Rebecca Night was taking on the main role of Fanny Hill, a simple country girl forced through financial destitution to become a courtesan in 18th century London. But she was to be ably supported by a strong cast, including Alison Steadman as Mrs Brown, the owner of a house of ‘ill-repute’ while Samantha Bond played Mrs Coles, her classier rival. Hugo Speers played Mr H, one of Fanny’s lovers.

Unfortunately, this production didn’t quite match my high expectations. My primary difficulty with the piece was the lead actress. I found Rebecca Night’s performance as Fanny to be wooden and smug in equal measure. Some minor roles were similarly frustrating. However, Samantha Bond as Mrs Coles was very well-done and Hugo Speers’s Mr H was sufficiently compelling.

Some reviewers have focused on the sensual content of the mini-series, seeing it as unnecessarily sensationalist – ‘porn for Daily Mail readers’ was one rather amusing description I read. I hasten to disagree on this point actually. I think the series might have worked better if it was a little more sensual in its depiction of sexual activity rather than dourly mechanical. Even with much of the action taking place in brothels, the show lacked the lush, decadent vibe it really needed.

Scripting was fine, although I rarely welcome the Brechtian approach in TV drama, where the protagonist addresses us directly, in this instance as Fanny has recorded her past in her memoirs. Of course this approach was a direct take on the novel’s own structure, but it remains a narrative form I find uncomfortable viewing.

Clearly budgetary demands ensured a relatively narrow scope in terms of location choices and set design, but the show could have benefited from a wider geographical range rather than the few interior sets and extremely limited array of exteriors we were presented with. There was zero sense of Fanny having switched from the country to the hustle and bustle of London.

All in all, I’m glad to see the BBC attempting different ‘product’ to the usual fare. But this Fanny Hill lacked sparkle and verve and could have benefited from a stronger, central acting performance.

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