Sam Leith Sam Leith

A few good books

Prestige novel adaptations are a big British export. Why can’t we show a bit more imagination about what to adapt?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever ITV or the BBC decides — the latter usually with charter renewal in the near or middle distance — that it needs to make some of that World-Class Drama it’s so proud of, its thoughts turn to regency frocks, scruffy urchins, pea-soupy London, agreeable country houses and the incessant clip-clop of hoof on cobble.

Classy costume drama — invariably based, for extra classiness, on classy fiction of the sort you might find in Penguin Classics — is one of our major exports. But in the range of its source material they consider, its makers are as blinkered as the inevitable horse that draws Mr Darcy’s inevitable carriage in the inevitable tracking shot round Pemberley.

You’ll get Dickens, Tolstoy, Jane Austen and — so garlanded by now in TV adaptation terms that she joins their ranks — Hilary Mantel. You might get the odd better-known Brontë, if you’re lucky, and Hardy always goes down well. Then what? George Eliot — quite wrongly — is usually seen as a bit on the stodgy side and not concerned enough either with love or jokes. In more recent times entire decades seem to be monopolised by Waugh, Wodehouse and Le Carré.

I think we can attribute much of this to the Midas touch of Andrew Davies — who has become so much the metropolitan power in the genre that he has shaped the landscape around him. And it makes sense that Davies makes a beeline for the big beasts of the 19th century. He seems, in large part, to be actuated by the innocently childish desire to épater la bourgeoisie by sexing up the classics and filling all those crinolines with erections. But there’s no shock value in shaking up something of which the general public had only the dimmest idea in the first place.

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