torsdag 21 september 2017

19th-century classics that would make good TV drama

Poldark series four. Victoria series two. The Crown season two. Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables and Howard's End. No newly-scripted ensemble drama/family saga in the Downton mould in the offing that I've heard of - perhaps viewers like me, who failed to take The Halcyon to our hearts, are partly to blame, but even so. And no news of The Gilded Age, which Julian Fellowes is supposed to be scripting for American television. Hmmm.

As you may have gathered, I'm not all that excited about this "safety first" line-up of costume dramas, though I do enjoy watching Poldark, Victoria and The Crown. But instead of whining about the costume drama turnout as I usually do, I thought I'd be more constructive and actually give a few suggestions as to which novels would make good period telly. I'll not be broaching the Dombey and Son subject again, as I've already gone on about it here and here. And elsewhere.

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens  I've never actually seen a TV adaptation of Barnaby Rudge, not even an old and dusty one. It must be ages since they did it. It's true, the novel has its faults, but they could easily be ironed out in an ace adaptation by, say, Andrew Davies (cut John Grueby, for one). There are many points in favour of Barnaby Rudge as a TV drama: an engaging title character, dramatic riot scenes, and an at least partly strong supporting cast including Maypole Hugh, Sim Tappertit, sharp-tounged Miss Miggs and the delightfully ignoble blind man Stagg. Not to mention Grip the raven (an animal trainer would be needed).

V for villain factor: High. This is the novel that includes Gashford and Sir John Chester - the latter even made my top ten male Dickens villains list. These are parts which I think top-notch British actors could do much with. Charles Dance could still work as Sir John, surely?

Armadale by Wilkie Collins Just about anything of what I've read by Collins would make great television - excepting perhaps Hide and Seek. I'll limit myself to mentioning the two books which I think are his best (apart from The Woman in White, which has been adapted, though not very well). Armadale takes a while to get going, but again this is something a skillful adapter would know how to deal with, plus watching the back-story acted out rather than narrated would be sure to add interest. It's a novel full of both incident and intrigue, and there are plenty of meaty parts as Collins knows how to take care of his secondary characters.

V for villain factor: No worthwhile male villains as I recall, but what a villainess! The flame-haired temptress Lydia Gwilt is so determined and intelligent she would be sure to appeal to male and female viewers alike - and you certainly can't say that for many femme fatales. One very likeable thing about her is that she remains completely unimpressed by the novel's ostensible hero, popular but dim-witted Allan Armadale, and instead falls head over heels for his loyal friend Midwinter, who is the far superior man. But Allan has the cash... What to do?

No name by Wilkie Collins  Anti-heroine Magdalen's efforts to regain the family inheritance she and her sister lost by unfortunate legal circumstances are another instance of exciting Collins plotting. She is wrong-headed and highly-strung to be sure, but needless to say a lot more interesting than her virtuous sister Norah. With new twists at every turn, this would make a thrilling mini-series, and whoever played Magdalen would have a show-case part which could bring her an award or two.

V for villain factor: It's not easy to say who counts as a villain, as you rather want Magdalen to succeed in her intrigues, though not at too high a cost for herself (and I don't think that's just me). The cousin who got the inheritance and whom she intends to ensnare, Michael Vanstone, I remember reminded me of the Disney cartoon version of Prince John in Robin Hood (it's been a while since I've read the book now). Not very impressive villain material then. Captain Wragge on the other hand, the swindler who helps Magdalen out and can be classified as either a high-prestige villain or a villain surrogate, is very entertaining, and his battle of wits against the equally intelligent Mrs Lecount, who tries to protect her master Vanstone from a woman she's convinced is up to no good, would surely be telly gold.

Villette or Shirley by Charlotte Brontë One is well-plotted, has an interesting setting and a memorable female antagonist. The other has two likeable heroines and a happy ending. Both have at least one worthwhile heroine love interest (irascible Paul Emanuel in Villette, somewhat Napoleonic mill owner Robert Moore in Shirley). If you could combine elements of these two novels, you'd have the perfect costume drama. As it is, it's hard to choose which one would work best on the small screen. My vote would, I think, go to Villette, as I remember it as being the better read. The heroine Lucy Snowe may not be a charmer, but she's not entirely without potential, and besides, they can't all be sunny, witty Lizzy Bennets. The ending poses more of a problem, but although Lucy almost certainly loses the love of her life she is successful professionally, so maybe it wouldn't have to be all bleak. One could do a "tomorrow is another day" spin on it.

V for villain factor: On the male front, zilch. Charlotte Brontë may give us brainy and interestingly flawed heroes as well as quite a lot of power play in the various love relationships, but there's a cost: she feels no need to introduce worthwhile male villains as other characters have already covered the cleverness and power-hungriness angle. And no, Brocklehurst still doesn't count. (Though wasn't there someone quite tasty in The Professor?) Madame Beck, the female antagonist mentioned above, is a great character, but the question is if she really counts as a villainess: she has nothing personal against Lucy, and when she opposes her you entirely see the Madame's point.

Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac or something else by Balzac, maybe? Colourful characters, attractive Parisian settings, lots of love entanglements, plotting that may sometimes surprise you, vivid language that would surely prove inspirational to an adapter - what's not to like? (All right, in this case, the appalling hero, or rather anti-hero, Lucien.) Not to mention...

V for villain factor: ... absolutely marvellous villains! The best in this novel are found in Lucien's provincial home: the two businessmen brothers Cointet, especially Boniface aka "the tall Cointet". He enlists the help of lawyer Petit-Claud (a good, solid minor villain) in order to pinch a valuable patent, and in return furthers his associate's career by arranging his marriage to the bastard daughter of a local nobleman. "She's so ugly", Petit-Claud complains. "Do you think you'd be allowed to have her if she was pretty?" Boniface coolly responds. There's a lot more in the same pleasingly cynical vein. Given that Balzac's villains can be so enjoyable, it's a wonder my interest in them never quite erupts into a long-lasting villain crush - with the exception of Frédéric de Nucingen, whom I did not fancy but felt a great deal of sympathy for in A Harlot High and Low, they are maybe somewhat lacking when it comes to leader of the pack appeal. But they're certainly good enough for a fictional villain fling.