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.


  1. "We sat down, en famille"

    That stings.

  2. I loved Capturing Mary but can't remember her even being in it! :O

    Can you remind me who she played?

    I watched this and quite enjoyed it and basically liked the main actress but I couldn't help being very distracted by Tess's rather fashionable looking choppy fringe that really looked like it had walked straight out of a salon. Far from the whether it would work in jeans test - I feel that they do always tend to look far too fashionable in a modern sense(as in now) in costume drama and fail to look properly of the times which would really allow us to imagine it - so important in terms of understanding the constraints and the attitudes of the society. I thought the best scene was when Tess was weeping with her mother who was going on about how selfish she was being not trying to marry Mr Rapist. I thought that scene was chilling.

  3. The first thing that came to mind was that it was a shame that this was the only thing we could do in 2008. About the rape scene : we could barely see a thing through the mist. Hardy had to be careful to avoid censorship but surely today we can do better than that ? The whole episode seemed so mild compared to what Hardy wrote, I'm a bit surprised to be honest, I expected it to be more daunting and the atmosphere to be heavier. Gemma makes a fairly good Tess, although I had great expectations and was a bit disappointed with her in the first 40 minutes. She's much closer to the Tess I imagined after the rape. Tess before the rape is difficult to play anyway.
    I hope the rest of it will be better. Oh dear, I had such hopes too.

  4. there was a Tess on TV about 8 years ago I think, and I hve seen the Polanski film, and really I find Tess infuriating so decided not to watch it. I get the feeling sometimes that the Beeb just bung on a costume drama when they have nothing else to do and while I love them, feel that they can be too much of a good thing. I agree that Cranford set a bench mark hard to follow but look forward to the Andrew Davies adaptation of the Pallisers due next year, I gather, and also Dombey and Son which I gather is in the pipeline. Just wish that a little more imagination would be brought to play and adaptations of lesser known classics be tried. I can think of lots


    follow this link, l hope you like what you read

    saz x


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at