Carry on up the revolution

The Scarlet Pimpernel seems melodramatic. But the writers have toned down the original. By Robin Buss
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The Independent Culture
Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel represents one of those archetypes of popular fiction that never seem to lose their appeal. He is the dispenser of justice who conceals his identity behind a deceptively ordinary front: mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, playboy Bruce Wayne. Even before Superman and Batman, there was Don Diego de la Vega, alias Zorro, who like the Pimpernel leaves a distinctive calling card at the scene of his deeds; a new film of his adventures, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, was recently released. And before any of these, there was Edmond Dantes, the humble sailor who escapes from his unjust imprisonment to be reborn as the vengeful Count of Monte Cristo: French television is currently screening a lavish new version of Dumas's novel, starring Gerard Depardieu.

A French audience might be slightly less receptive to the three films that make up the BBC's new version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, despite the appeal of Richard E Grant as the hero. Together with Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and the Carry On team's Don't Lose Your Head, Baroness Orczy's stories comprise a peculiarly English view of the French Revolution, in which a mob of Frenchies rushes around waving pikes, calling everyone "Citizen" and chopping each other's heads off. It takes a nonchalant milord - Sidney Carton, Sir Percy Blakeney - to rescue these fanatics from the results of their folly. Orczy's attitude to the French (apart from a handful of aristos) almost qualifies as racist: from the opening lines of The Scarlet Pimpernel she describes the Parisian crowd as "human only in name". It is all very well to argue that these are just jolly good, swashbuckling stories, but Orczy meant every word, researched the background thoroughly and intended her work to carry a political message.

The BBC adaptation has toned it down considerably; after all, as the producer Julian Murphy says, the books aren't "classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, where to change a word would amount to sacrilege, so we decided to make alterations". The person chiefly responsible for these was the writer, Richard Carpenter, who found Orczy very anti-French and "a bit short on humour". He decided to make the revolutionary, Citizen Chauvelin, a younger man than he is in the books and the former lover of Sir Percy's French wife, Marguerite (played by Elizabeth McGovern), thus giving the elusive Pimpernel a personal motive for disliking his arch-opponent. Carpenter has also elaborated Marguerite's biography to make her the daughter of a man who was executed by an especially nasty Old Regime aristocrat. As a result, she is in principle a supporter of the Revolution, though naturally she deplores its "excesses".

It is almost certain that Baroness Orczy would not have approved. Unfortunately for her, in 1903, while the manuscript of the book was still trying to find a publisher, she sold the theatrical rights to Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, whose stage adaptation was the most successful production in their acting careers.

The book, riding on this success, finally appeared in 1905, but since "theatrical rights" were held to include film rights, Orczy and her estate have had no say in the films; she took Terry and Neilson to court in 1917 over the first of them, and lost her case. Alexander Korda later acquired the rights from the Terrys to make the best-known cinema version, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon (1934). David Niven took the part for Powell and Pressburger's The Elusive Pimpernel in 1950, and the BBC made the first television adaptation in the same year. There were further television versions in 1969 and 1982.

Orczy, Richard Carpenter says, "fell in love with her hero, so she wrote the books from the standpoint of Marguerite: she becomes Marguerite, and therefore Marguerite is actually the central character. And as the books went on, so she became more dominant, while he became quite a shadowy figure".

Much of the first story is taken up with Marguerite's discovery that her apparently feather-brained husband is, in fact, the Scarlet Pimpernel, scourge of the Committee of Public Safety; and the readers, too, are frequently kept in the dark about Percy's many disguises. "The thing that really used to annoy me about them when I was reading the later books is that you have a character called Raoul who worked for Chauvelin, or something - and only halfway through the book does she reveal the fact that Raoul is actually Sir Percy in disguise." She also has the habit, Carpenter points out, of extricating her hero from one tight spot or another with the words: "Under cover of darkness, he escaped". However, "on film, under cover of darkness doesn't work".

These tricks of popular fiction, pushing the story along, fooling the reader about a character's true identity, often lead to implausibilities. Dumas has a hard time convincing us that the humble Dantes can really have been transformed into the imperious Count. And why was Marguerite attracted to Percy in the first place, before she knew he was the Pimpernel? In real life, women are more inclined to marry what they think is a dashing romantic hero, then find out that they have shackled themselves to a foppish, self-admiring Sir Percy.

The producers decided, from the start, not to copy Orczy's device of disguising the Pimpernel's identity from the reader: "Richard E Grant's fate is well known and everyone knew that he was going to play the Scarlet Pimpernel, so the only people that had to he fooled were the people in the play." He works on the principle: "show the dog the rabbit", believing that, as far as possible, you should take the audience into your confidence. Humour is another device to establish this kind of complicity. "You've got to be very careful with melodrama, because you're on the edge of laughing at it anyway. So the more comedy you can put into it, the better. You must get the audience to laugh at the bits where you want them to laugh."

Carpenter, who started his career as an actor (he appeared in the 1959 ITV series Knight Errant, as well as on stage, in films and a host of other television productions), has become something of a specialist in the action-adventure genre, notably with Dick Turpin and Robin of Sherwood; he had a slight change of pace for the BBC production of Mary Norton's The Borrowers. By the sound of it, The Scarlet Pimpernel was not the easiest of assignments. The original plan was for six episodes of 50 minutes each; the end of the first episode, he thought, would be a good point for Marguerite to make the discovery about her husband's dual identity. That had to be scrapped, when he learned that the producers had decided, instead, to have three 90-minute films. Then, he was not sure that Richard E Grant was right for the lead; and, though he now says that he has revised his opinion ("I like him in the part. He's very intelligent, very restrained"), he would still have preferred more contrast between Sir Percy and the Pimpernel, as well as "a bit more flamboyance, a bit more swash and buckle". By the end, when he was unfortunately sent a very dark print of the first film, he decided that the whole thing was "underplayed, underdirected and underlit".

Pity the poor writer. Orczy apparently had her first mental vision of Sir Percy Blakeney, the "perfect Englishman", while standing on the westbound platform of Temple underground station, and strove to be true to it through some 20 volumes, with her readers clamouring for more and her lost film rights allowing any Tom, Dick and Howard to be cast in the part. Carpenter's voice takes on a tone somewhere between sadness, resignation and rancour when he mentions some of the excisions from his script: "That was a scene that got cut out. Quite a lot got cut out, actually." We all know how he feels. Cinema and television are co-operative enterprises and, as Carpenter says, "you have to accept compromise, it's the essence of the whole genre"; and "a scriptwriter is really tied to the leg of the camera".

In the end, however, "I made it to entertain people," says Carpenter. He has none of Orczy's fervent anti-republicanism - if anything, his sympathies would seem to be towards the opposite end of the political spectrum from hers - but the essential is keeping the audience entertained. He points out that Martin Shaw does not see his character, Chauvelin, as a real baddie, and how important that is: "Villains must never think of themselves as villains." Even so, Chauvelin can be "pretty unpleasant", engaging in torture, murder and blackmail on behalf of the cause, but he is not as deep-dyed, or as much of a fool, as Orczy depicts him. Whether the time is ripe for another victim of the Pimpernel story, the ratings will show. But there is something about these popular myths: they just won't go away.

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