A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
WARNING: contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both the novel and the 2004 BBC TV dramatisation.
Confession time: I did not have this piece all ready prepared for this week. I’ve been content to watch Adaptation Week unfold with fascination, to see what might be left to say about an adaptation of a loved and admired literary work. I’m very interested in the reactions to the wide range of treatment my fellow foxes have given to their chosen titles and themes in what has been a hugely successful week for Vulpes Libris. We have effectively covered so many of the issues with adaptations:
• We should consider the written original and the visual adaptation each a work of art in its own right; both can be enjoyed side by side, sometimes for the same, sometimes for different reasons
• A great adaptation is one that captures the spirit of the original while understanding what works and what doesn’t when you point a camera at it.
• Good choices make for a great adaptation, however far it takes you from the original; and the reverse – a lousy adaptation can be the result of bad choices, however faithful.
So, now we’ve covered so much ground, this leaves me free for a case study. This is my own story of the impact that an unheralded BBC period drama which turned out to be a truly great adaptation in many ways, had on my life.
It will not be a substantial review of either North and South the novel, or North and South the TV adaptation, not a detailed ‘compare and contrast’, though I’ll make some observations on both. Apart from anything else, I haven’t got room to say everything I have to say about either. I started talking about them both nearly five years ago, and though I’ve slowed down I haven’t really stopped since. I am not sure that I am capable now of writing an objective review of either the novel or its adaptation for television, because the experience of watching Sandy Welch’s dramatisation of North and South on TV in 2004 has had such a profound effect on my subsequent life. It doesn’t seem possible for anyone to write a sentence like that, but it happens to be true. I would not be a writer about books and reading, I would not have a lively and enriching life online with friends across the world, I certainly would not be a Bookfox, and it is possible I would not be doing the job I am now doing, if it had not been for watching North and South, in November 2004.
Period Drama is a TV staple, giving viewing pleasure to millions; it can be seen as safe programming; an annual autumnal treat for many, excruciating tedium for some, and scandalous treatment of much-loved icons for a few. Every few years, a series takes light, fires the collective imagination and goes global. Some of us are old enough to remember the phenomenon of The Forsyte Saga; in recent memory, Andrew Davies’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice is the landmark. I still from time to time see the iconic Radio Times image of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy (smouldering, natch) pinned to noticeboards or locker doors, nearly 15 years on. It must be deeply frustrating to the programme makers – what is the magic ingredient? Can you extract and bottle it? Why this one, and not David Copperfield? Or Vanity Fair? Where do we find our next paradigm shift?
No period drama offering in the 8 years after Pride and Prejudice had the magic potion. There were one or two good productions, but a feeling of flagging energy set in, a slightly desperate casting around for ‘products’. Even as a keen consumer, I was losing interest, and wondered if the annual treat was coming to an end (if indeed it still was a treat).
The BBC’s offering for 2004 was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, adapted for TV by Sandy Welch, directed by Brian Percival. At that time, I had no idea how widely it was read; all I thought was that it was a novel that I knew and loved. I was so disillusioned with the last BBC costume drama I’d watched (Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, notable for an early glimpse of David Tennant as clever but completely unalluring comic relief, and for the profligate waste of the talent of Bill Nighy) that I almost decided not to disappoint myself by watching it. I didn’t know the cast: the CVs of the leads did not fill me with much joy (a Margaret Hale from Eastenders (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and a John Thornton from Cold Feet (Richard Armitage) did not appeal. More fool I for being such a snob). In the end, I relented and recorded the first two episodes. When I had an evening with nothing else to do, I watched the first episode, at first with mounting horror (I’ll come to the reasons why), then with growing respect, then with astonished recognition that I loved it so much I could forgive it all its sins. I then had to keep watching to the end of episode 2, which culminated in John Thornton’s reckless and doomed proposal to Margaret Hale. What I did next is what took me into a new phase of my life.
North and South, for those who do not know it, have read this far and don’t mind spoilers, is a novel that explores the divisions and contrasts in the early1850s between the new industrial and the old landed, agricultural Britain, and makes an idealistic case for understanding, co-operation, exploring new and old ideas, changing one’s mind, and ultimately the breaking down of barriers. These themes are explored via a rich cast of characters and dramatic sub-plots, and they are symbolised in the love story of John Thornton, the northern cotton master, and Margaret Hale, the southern daughter of the vicarage. In the recognisable genre of state of the nation writing there is a sub-set of industrial novels. Among these North and South stands out in the deft and convincing integration of a love story with the exploration of political and economic conflict and of dissent.
In John Thornton, Gaskell created a uniquely wonderful hero. Purely because the structure of the plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice, Thornton is often described as ‘an industrial Darcy’, but there is much, much more to him than that. He embodies self-creation, enterprise, progress and innovation, and self-improvement. He is at home with ideas, as well as commerce; he engages with Margaret’s intellect while, as a complete innocent, being powerfully attracted to her physically. He takes a tortuous journey towards a dream of industrial harmony in parallel with a journey towards emotional fulfilment. Likewise, Margaret is an admirably strong heroine; however prejudiced she is against him, his class and his values, she too is at home in the world of ideas and debate and cannot dismiss him as negligible, while, gradually and against her will, he is the cause of her sexual awakening (which as written by Gaskell is a masterpiece of veiled passion). Once I’d walked a mile (a mile? More like a hundred yards) in Margaret Hale’s shoes, I adored him too. I’d never shared with anyone my hero-worship of John Thornton, and it never occurred to me that I might not be the only person thinking ‘mess with him at your peril!’
So, having got to the end of episode 2, mirroring Margaret Hale as we both watched, stunned, as John Thornton stormed out of the wreck of his first marriage proposal on the words ‘I understand you. I understand you completely’, I took the step into a new life.
I went online. I searched the BBC site and found its webpages on North and South. There was a messageboard. I joined it. This was my first experience of expressing myself to strangers on the Internet. How many of these intelligent women I was chatting to with such ease were really truckers called Dave? Did I mind if they were? I gratefully hid behind a board-name and started talking to other people who were experiencing the same mix of wonder and satisfaction and curiosity as I was. The conversation united those who knew the novel and its hero Thornton and hugged him to their heart as a favourite, and those who were discovering Gaskell, North and South and Thornton for the first time. It started with admiration and wonder, then unabashed fan-worship, then moved on to throwing out questions. Some of us answered these questions and in turn asked others. We started a campaign when we discovered that there were ‘No Plans’ to release the series on DVD. Scarily articulate adult pester-power changed the mind of BBC Worldwide. But mainly, we marvelled at the performances and the production – particularly Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thornton. Our story was picked up by The Times, and we were hailed as a new breed of fan.
In the end (to cut a long story short) we crashed the message board.
The BBC decided that too much of the licence fee would be spent on uprating the message board for the new rate of traffic and on moderating (in all senses, technical and otherwise) our raptures, and so we were the cause of a change of policy and a bonfire of BBC message boards. The forum C19 (see sidebar for a link) provided a lifeline, we all decamped, and the conversation continued. We made contact with Sandy Welch and with Brian Percival, compiled our questions to them, and relished their responses (prototype VL-style interviews, in fact). As North and South had showings overseas, more viewers became caught up in it, googled Richard Armitage, found the right one, found C19 and started talking. We held a 26-week group read of the novel, and a group viewing of the series. We picked over the social and historical context, we had wild fallings out over such topics as Thornton’s sexual history (never Margaret Hale’s, I remember observing, ruefully). We are still talking, people are still finding North and South and joining in. I have made wonderful friends, some of whom I’ve met, some of whom I probably never will, to whom I never have to explain myself – we have so much shared experience already.
So – what gives this adaptation its particular magic properties? A superb script by Sandy Welch captures what is important about the novel, presenting us with some huge liberties, but definitely true to the spirit. A superb cast revelling in the quality of the characters they were asked to portray: as well as the leads, Sinead Cusack as Hannah Thornton, Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins stand out, but all were utterly committed, and it shows. The production design was radically different from usual; the environment created was truly original. This was not ‘Periodshire’, lazily reaching for Lacock again, and spreading more hundredweights of loam over the main street. This was ‘Darkshire’, and the locations chosen to represent the secular cathedrals and industrial palaces that were the trading rooms and the mills are fresh to the eye and convincing. The script tackled the theme of industrial strife, leading to the strike and its violent end and aftermath, head on, with intelligence and immediacy. The cinematography was remarkably fine; South and North were characters in the drama in a wonderful sort of pathetic fallacy: the South was all golden and green and bathed in sunlight. The North was near-monochrome; black, white (‘I have seen Hell, and it is white, snow white’, as Gaskell never wrote, but should have), greeny-grey, ‘fustian’; the sun hidden behind a pall of cloud, or smoke, or both. When Margaret returns to Helstone and her childhood home, her eyes have been opened by her time in the North. Her memories are misleading her. There she finds poverty, ignorance and sadness, and a lot less energy devoted to change. Gradually, the golden light on the green hills is de-saturated, and a sinister gloom dims the sun, as she recognises how far she has travelled from that place.
Holding it all together is a definitive portrayal of John Thornton. I am afraid that I am going to risk taking issue with Richard Armitage here. In the wonderful interview he gave to Vulpes Libris, he elegantly sidestepped any notion that he had been the inspiration for writers. What about viewers – why was I hooked? Echoing Moira, I have to say that I think he had just a little to do with it. His Thornton exudes power through a sense of pent-up energy and movement, relentlessly active, commanding and demanding respect. He is a man of few but telling words (unlike Gaskell’s Thornton, who scarcely shuts up). He looks like the Thornton of the novel, and the Thornton in my head. He has found the Darkshire accent. It is hard right now to imagine anyone bettering this portrayal. His achievement is part of a quality package – it would have unbalanced a production that had less strength in depth, but the strength is there, and it does not. So, now I am a fan. I shall always be grateful to Richard Armitage for loving the role of Thornton as much as he did, for understanding and empathising with the character so well, for doing the research, for getting under his skin, and for conveying all he found in him through a landmark performance.
No wonder we found so much to talk about.
What of the initial mounting horror, and the liberties, and the sins I readily forgave? Well, within a minute of Thornton appearing on the screen, Sandy Welch makes a truly bold decision: Thornton, Gaskell’s man of honour, ‘tender, yet a master’, becomes a man of violence. In front of Margaret Hale, he attacks a delinquent worker, knocking him to the floor and kicking him viciously when down. Within this script he has his reasons, but the sense of shock is extreme, it is so wildly out of tune with the novel. Why do this? Well, I worked out for myself, and Sandy Welch confirms her reasoning, that somehow it has to be established that Margaret is to despise him. Go back to the novel, and we have an establishing scene that will not work if you point a camera at it. Margaret meets Thornton, who has come to see her father, in a hotel, and they bore each other witless for half an hour. Margaret discounts him, hardly notices him, Thornton feels belittled by her and wishes he were somewhere else. It is a wonderfully subtle scene on the page, but something else is needed on screen. This choice however was hugely controversial.
The other enormous liberty is the end. There is a chance meeting on a railway platform somewhere in the middle of England. There is an éclaircissement. There is a passionate (off the scale) kiss in public (not hidden by any distractions like a passing circus parade, for instance). All the strait-laced Victorian extras completely ignore this event, and a ubiquitous woman in a brown dress does not belabour them with her umbrella and call the constable. Somehow, this scenario is made all the more implausible by the fact that the hero doing the kissing has taken off his cravat. But … it is so beautiful, and now we have two wonderfully passionate endings to enjoy: the novel and the drama.
I’ll leave it at that. There are other choices that I find debatable, notably the treatment of Mr Hale’s Doubts, but this is a case study not a charge sheet. None of them fatally detracts from the overall achievement in my eyes. But they do give us something to talk about ….
How does this adaptation stand up to five relentless years of watching, talking, analysing, enquiring? Because it is such a strong package, of script, cast, production, performances, it survives really very well, although no TV series is really designed to be dissected to this extent. Issues of editing and continuity do crop up in repeated viewing and can be intrusive thereafter. The novel had its difficulties too, mainly owing to its origins as a serial in Household Words, and the pressure that Dickens put on Gaskell to keep within his editorial confines. Gaskell herself wryly said she thought the novel should be called ‘Death and Variations’; accordingly, the third episode of the drama is relentlessly devoted to one demise after another and loses some of the momentum of the other three. But survive it has, and when it was re-shown recently on TV, all the old pleasure in watching it returned.
The major reason for me to love this adaptation is the place that it has taken me in my life. Because of North and South I have rediscovered fandom when I thought I was too old for it. That felt uncomfortable and embarrassing at first, but now I am learning to embrace it. I am part of an online community of friends. I have learned how to share what I feel about books I’ve read and films and dramas I’ve seen. I have taken this insight of how being online and interactive can enhance the experience of books and reading into my professional, as well as my personal life. I have rediscovered my enquiring mind, and started to ask and answer questions, sharing knowledge and insight with new friends. I’ve felt empathy with my northern forebears, and have been inspired to find out more about their world.
And all through a BBC period drama. But not just any old one – North and South. I wonder what the next great rediscovery will be? My hunch is that no-one will be able to plan for it or predict it. Try too hard, and success eludes you.
North and South, script by Sandy Welch, Director Brian Percival, starring Richard Armitage as John Thornton, Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, Sinead Cusack, Pauline Quirke, Brendan Coyle, Tim Piggot Smith, was first broadcast on BBC1 in November 2004, and issued on DVD in 2005.