Sunday, 14 September 2008
Tess and the jeans-test
It's been a while since I reviewed an actual book on here, hasn't it? It's partly because I've been busy doing lots of other things, like painting the bathroom and organising all my books, and partly because there are only so many posts I can write about Mapp and Lucia. So I shall turn to that inferior medium, the television.
We sat down, en famille, to watch the BBC's latest costume drama - Tess of the D'Urbervilles. For a genre which had been declared dead by TV executives until Colin Firth et al blasted that theory out of the lake, they certainly push as many as possible onto our screens at the moment. Over the past couple years we've had Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford, Sense and Sensibility, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Room With A View... I've probably missed some, but you get the gist.
Every time, we get columnists and bloggers and everyone talking about the pros and cons of costume drama - is it lazy scheduling or is it intelligently using a world of potential stories and well-loved characters? It's very simple, to my mind. If the programme would work equally well without costumes and history, then it's a success. Cranford, probably the best thing I've seen on television in years, would have phenomenal in any era and if Dame Judi was in jeans. So, the jeans-test for Tess...
Erm. Shall we say a strong maybe? The actors are great - Gemma Arterton will soon be everywhere, including Lizzie B in Lost in Austen, and was fantastic in Capturing Mary with Maggie Smith last year, and Ruth Jones is an inspired, funny casting as Tess's Mum. The shooting is beautiful. But they still rely so heavily on wearing peasant costumes and waistcoats and having horses and saying "didn't ought to" and speaking in a West Country, that it be, that if it were transferred to 2008, they'd spend hours staring at a wall. Somehow the relationships between the characters don't feel *quite* real, they're more textbook period drama and a little thoughtless - Alec, for instance, is obviously a cad from the second he sidles up smoking a cigar and smirking lasciviously. On the other hand, of course, we have the wonderful Anna Massey as his mother, who can do no wrong.
Perhaps I've been a little harsh. It is a very good programme and I'll certainly watch the rest, just... once you've seen Cranford, you realise there are new heights which could be met.