Given what some of the previews were saying, I was half-expecting us to be getting “Material Girl” booming out all the way through this. I’m pleased to say that we didn’t – not that I don’t appreciate the works of the great Ms Ciccone, but period drama is period drama and doesn’t need to be “modernised”. There was the odd classic ITV anachronism – did people in the Regency really say “Room for a little one”?! – but generally it was true to the period and true to the book. And Olivia Clarke, from Oldham, was great as Becky – although I thought the portrayal of Amelia was more of a talking point.
This isn’t an easy book to adapt for TV on film. I absolutely loved the 1987 adaptation, with Eve Matheson as Becky, and I’m having to try very hard not to keep comparing the two! But it’s a satire – the fact that the spa they visit is called Bad Pumpernickel says it all! – and satires aren’t always easy to get across on TV or film. Especially when it’s the iconic Sunday 9pm spot, when people expect love and romance and heaving bosoms! It is, of course, “a novel without a hero”, so there aren’t going to be any wet shirt scenes or topless scything scenes. And those are what tend to grab the headlines. We’re all so shallow, aren’t we 🙂 ? And I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t like the book because they don’t like the heroine.
But do you really have to like the heroine? You’re not meant to like Becky. But you can admire her. As someone who spends half her life worrying that she’s upset/offended someone – I have been known to edit a comment on a friend’s Facebook post four times – I actually wish I had a bit of her nerve. She doesn’t see why she should settle for what life’s given her, and she sets out to climb the greasy pole. In the early 19th century, the obvious way for a young, attractive woman to do that was by trying to bag a rich bloke, and that’s exactly what she does. It’s hardly unusual, either in books or in real life. There’ve been a lot of comments about how, if Becky were around today, she’d be on reality TV. Maybe she would. Or maybe she’d be hanging around the sort of clubs and bars that Premier League footballers go to. It doesn’t really matter, because she’s not around today. But there are always people who are out to use what they’ve got to get what they can get.
I suppose the difference with Becky, in terms of book heroines whom you don’t really like – Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written, but I wouldn’t say that I “like” Scarlett O’Hara – is that, unlike Scarlett, she really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. The one time she redeems herself is when she persuades Amelia to marry Dobbin, and that’s partly why the friendship between the two of them is so important to the book. The sweet sister or best friend who can’t see the bad in anyone isn’t an unusual character, but Amelia is pretty sappy and colourless in a way that people like Jane Bennet and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes aren’t, They have changed that in this adaptation, to give Amelia, played by Claudia Jessie, a much stronger personality. I like this version of Amelia … but I’m always quite dubious about TV adaptations changing the characters too much.
Something similar was done with Fanny Price, who isn’t sappy but is distinctly over-prim and boring, in the adaptation of Mansfield Park a few years ago. So – do TV producers feel that sappy/colourless female characters (apologies for excessive use of the word “sappy”!) aren’t acceptable in the 21st century? Going slightly off the point, I recently went to see the musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman. It was great – all that ’80s music! – and no-one could ever compare Paula to Amelia Sedley, but the great iconic moment at the end, when Zack carries her off in his arms, did feel slightly awkward. The production team obviously felt that too, because she swept him up in her arms when the cast came on to take a bow at the end! And, whilst I can’t wait to see the Pretty Woman musical – music by Bryan Adams!! – I do take the point in some of the reviews that the idea of the rich businesswoman picking up the girl off a street corner and giving her money to buy expensive clothes with seems rather cringeworthy. Or am I making too much of this, and were the producers of Vanity Fair just trying to make Amelia a bit more interesting?
They haven’t changed any of the other characters. And, so far, they haven’t really changed the storyline. I thought George Osbourne could have been a bit more caddish, rather than just generally annoying, but I suppose he was generally annoying. And I prefer to think of Dobbin being more the strong and silent type and a bit less nervous and self-effacing, but, again, that’s probably just me! Jos Sedley was spot on, though, as the caricature of the rather idiotic nabob in the era of East India Company administration of India. The Crawley house seemed rather more Gothic horror novel-esque than I remembered, but Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt was great.
It’s all about the girls, though. And we’ve still got Miss Matilda Crawley to come. It is, after all, a novel without a hero!
In terms of the actual production, it was all really bright and colourful. I’m not good with technical stuff, but I gather that this is due to computer generated imagery. When they showed some of the shots of London, I was half-expecting a group of bystanders to burst into “Who will buy this wonderful morning?” – it had that kind of feel to it! But Vanity Fair *is* colourful. The Georgian era *is* colourful. It’s not the Restoration – Restoration era London would definitely lend itself to CGI (TV adaptation of Forever Amber, anyone?)! – but it’s certainly not the era of covering up piano legs because it’s rude for even furniture to show its bare legs. The Museum of London website describes the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where Jos nearly proposed but didn’t, as “Part art gallery, part fashion show and part brothel”! (It didn’t last too long into the Victorian era.) I’m rather looking forward to seeing what they do with the Duchess of Richmond’s ball.
I don’t think this is going to become part of our culture in the way that the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice did, or that Downton Abbey did. Of everything I’ve ever written, the post about “Downton Abbey and the Odessa pogroms” has had more views than anything else! But it filled that Sunday 9pm slot nicely, and I enjoyed it. And I see that it’s made a lot of today’s front pages, even without wet shirts or topless scything!