A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton


Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!

24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on January 4, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Happy new year to you to! And thank you for articulating so clearly why I chose not to watch the W&P adaptation. I just knew it would be all modern and short scenes and dumbed down for the mainstream – seeing it referred to as a “costume drama” told me all I needed to know. You’re not the only one who prefers old BBC drama!


    • Hello Kaggsy – “costume drama” is such a terrible expression, isn’t it? It seems to imply that the primary interest is in pretty frocks and the like, and seems to belittle what are, after all, some of the finest works of the human imagination.


  2. Posted by Alan on January 4, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    I watched last night with growing dismay and I haven’t even read the novel! This is not to say “old adaptations good, new adaptations bad” – a recent revisit of the classic serial The Glittering Prizes convinced me that some things should be left to memory & only look stiff and awkward now. Equally, Wolf Hall was I thought a superb series, but tellingly it allowed scenes to develop their own rhythm and bring out the characters; the new W&P feels second rate as a drama full stop, even if we pretend the monumental novel behind it never existed.


    • And that’s the problem, isn’t it? I fully appreciate that an adaptation is free to take its own path, regardless of the original work, but when the end result is so pisspoor even when taken on its own terms, the question “why bother in the first place?” does rather come to mind.


  3. I haven’t watched the first episode yet, but hope to catch up with it later in the week. I wonder if many of the limitations of this type of drama (certainly those produced by the BBC) stem from a funding issue. This epic novel has been squeezed into something like six one-hour episodes, when in actual fact it probably deserves to be something nearer the 25-30 hour mark. It’s just so expensive to film this type of drama, especially given the locations and costumes etc., and I wonder whether the BBC can actually do justice to this type of production under the current model of funding?


    • Hello Jacqui, I am sure that the constraints you mention played their part, but this kind of film-making – of cutting away to new scene every few seconds – is not confined to this: if anything, it seems to be the norm. We saw this in the much praised Hollow Crown, in which the longer scenes were all cut up and spliced with each other to make sure no individual scene lasted more than a minute or two at the most: so Shakespeare’s careful pacing all went out of the window.

      Similarly with Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Bleak House: the scene where Jo shows the disguised lady Dedlock around the places associated with “Nemo” should have been one of the major dramatic climaxes – it certainly is in the novel – but in the adaptation, the effect was greatly diminished because it was intercut with a whole lot of other things; and the only reason for this that I could see for doing this was to ensure that the scene with Jo and Lady Dedlock did not go on too long uninterrupted. I’m afraid this kind of editing is the norm these days.

      But as i say, this is just my view, and is not too widely shared!


  4. Posted by lizzysiddal on January 4, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Am I glad that I decided to watch Episode One of Deutschland 83 instead! And I may decide to forego W&P altogether … or parallel watch with a prior version to compare and contrast ….


  5. Posted by shonti mukherjee on January 4, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Whereas the original ‘hint” of incest served dramatic tension of a loving discomfit, a sex scene gives an effect of a sort of Calvinist outrage as a guise for the cheapest erotica


    • Yes, agreed – it was placed there purely for the sake of titillation.

      Going off at a tangent a bit, it used to be thought back in the 60s that we were all too repressed about sex, and that our repressions led to various inhibitions and hang-ups, and that if we all loosened up and let it all hang out, we’d shed our unhealthy obsessions and adopt a healthier, more adult attitude to sex. But somehow, it hasn’t worked that way. Everything is hanging out now to a greater extent than anyone back then could ever have imagined, and we seem, if anything, to be even more prurient than we were back then. Odd, isn’t it?


  6. Posted by The Optimizer on January 4, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Hello Mr Git. I am watching it tonight so I will let you know how much I agree with you or not. Thanks for the advance warning.


    • Posted by shonti mukherjee on January 4, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      Yes…in response to ur tangent….indulgence in sexual excess has gone way beyond demonic proportions n way way way beyond hippy dippy ideas from the 1960’s. That doesnt mean having it so much as being consumed by it, which is worse….

      Going back to W & P….the whole balance of the book is ruined for me by the relationship between thw two being open rather than implicit….its just stupid!!


    • Let us know what you make of it!


  7. A few years ago, after a tip from a friend, I watched the 1969 Russian-made War & Peace series. I don’t remember how many hours it was, but many because we watched an hour each evening and looked forward to it for many days, suffering withdrawal when it was all over.

    Later I saw the Audrey Hepburn version and it suffered in comparison to the Russian (with subtitles). The 1969 film gave us a great patriotic landscape within which interesting and not-altogether-virtuous characters lived their lives. I don’t think “big” novels (Middlemarch, Bleak House, for example) can be chopped and diced into little segments — and a limited number at that — and convey any of the power of the original. Two innings of a baseball game may be entertaining, but are not the game, which needs to build its pattern and suspense over the entire nine innings.


    • Posted by shonti mukherjee on January 4, 2016 at 10:28 pm

      Mr Git is a good name for u….

      Mr A. O. Git is even better


    • Indeed – I agree entirely. If your purpose is to convey something of these novels, then you have to communicate its epic quality – you must allow for its long lines.

      I saw the Russian film (directed by Sergei Bondarchuk) many years ago, and it is certainly a handsome offering. It certainly gets closer to the heart of the matter tha does the rather weak Audrey Hepburn- Henry Fonda offering. But, for all its cardboard sets, the 70s BBc series was the one that opened my eyes to this novel, and I retain for it a strong nostalgic attachment. And it isn’t just nostalgia, I think: Jack Pulman’s script really is very, very good, and the performances are still strongly imprinted in my mind.


      • I am happy to report that I have a dual player which accepts both DVDs and the older VHS tapes. This lets me buy inexpensive tapes of older movies and TV series. I just ordered the BBC version on tape and am looking forward to many happy evenings. Thank you for alerting me to its existence.

      • Hope you like it. Do please let us know what you think of it!

  8. Posted by shonti mukherjee on January 5, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    I am quite content to only know Tolstoys version of the tale…call me myop


    • Yes, I’m quite happy with Tolstoy’s version as well. But since it was a BBC adaptation that first drew me to this work, I was hoping that this latest version would be somewhat better than I had been fearing. It wasn’t, sadly.


  9. Posted by Di on January 10, 2016 at 1:40 am

    My fear came true, or so I’ve just heard: Andrew Davies sexed up War and Peace!


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