History buried by her story

What does a historical adviser do when producers ignore his advice? DJ Taylor watches 'Vanity Fair' with heart in mouth
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The Independent Culture
Each November, along with falling leaves and fading light, comes the BBC classic serial. In the old days these were modest affairs (Cranford and John Halifax, Gentleman) beamed out on Sunday at teatime. These days, television having changed in the same way that industry moguls suppose the audience to have done, they tend to be multi-million pound extravaganzas packed with names, snug in the prime-time slots and underwritten by US networks.

They are flagships, too, in a way that probably would not have occurred to the director who put Captain Marryat's The Children of the New Forest on the small screen some time back in the 1980s. These, as even the most casual media scrutineer will admit, are edgy days for the BBC, full of ominous defeats and ditherings. In this atmosphere of timidity and shabby populism, the classic serial is often trumpeted as a fail-safe means of proclaiming its ability to deliver the goods in areas where it has traditionally excelled.

One detected something of this anxiety in the publicity that attended Vanity Fair (the second instalment of which goes out tonight on BBC1). The advance word was lavish, even by the standards of recent BBC blockbusters: Radio Times previews, puffs in half a dozen other programmes, even a "book of the film" (JIM Stewart's 1968 Penguin edition, it transpired, with a reading list 30 years out of date, but brightened up with colour photographs). Everything, inevitably, was shot through with the hankering for "relevance" that characterises any television foray into history, and in particular the idea that Becky Sharp is really a 1990s babe.

I watched Vanity Fair with more than usual trepidation. Having spent the past five years working on a biography of Thackeray [published next year by Chatto], I feel absurdly proprietorial about him, to the point where even the chance mention of his name in print has me bristling with unease. At the same time, the BBC drama department was kind enough to pay me quite a lot of money to act as "historical adviser" to the present undertaking. It tied me to the production in a rather claustrophobic way ("Brilliant! They did use the burning building ... I told them about those hats", and so on.)

Needless to say, and without wanting to offend the people at Television Drama, who were without exception both polite and genuinely interested in Thackeray, I didn't like it. How could I? Every line of rogue dialogue in Thackeray's text to give it "impact" made me flinch. Curiously, though, initial critical opinion (and the audience take-up for that matter - six million viewers is not counted a triumph, these days) seems to have voted the same way. Millions of pounds were spent; Natasha Little looks alluring in her nightdress, Miriam Margolyes does old Miss Crawley, and still it hasn't worked. Why?

Inevitably enough, Vanity Fair's drawbacks stem from the shackling together of two very different artistic forms. What should the people who set about conceiving a classic serial be trying to do? Recreate a great novel, or make a decent film that performs respectably in the ratings? As far as one can make out, Marc Munden, the director, wanted laudably to do both, and yet you end up with a sinking feeling that they have done neither. Part of this failing can be ascribed to the particular approach taken to Thackeray's novel. A bit more can be ascribed to the peculiarities of the text, and a lot more - a whole lot more - to the nature of the medium itself.

From the point of view of the original audience, Vanity Fair was a historical novel. Published in serial parts between January 1847 and July 1848, it tracks back over 30 years in time, and the centrepiece - the Battle of Waterloo - was only a memory to the majority of its initial readers. Aware of this gap and the potential loss of immediacy, Thackeray attempted to bridge it by packing his descriptions of bygone life with detail that was actually contemporary - opening a window for the reader into recent history, but simultaneously reassuring him with familiar props. This subterfuge was deliberate: at one point among his self-penned illustrations the author includes a sketch showing how his characters would "really" have dressed in 1812, as opposed to the garments draped on them in 1847.

Authorial sleight-of-hand presents one kind of problem to a modern TV director, solved in this case by going for a kind of late Regency- early Victorian compromise. Another comes in the choice of screenwriter. My first exposure to Andrew Davies's particular obsessions came in a discussion of the scene at Vauxhall Gardens where Becky tries to get Jos to propose. "Andrew wants to make it really colourful," the word came back. "Prostitutes rolling on the grass, that kind of thing." I pointed out that Vauxhall was a middle-class pleasure garden. It cost 3s 6d to get in, for a start - half the average weekly wage of a domestic servant, and Victorian newspapers were full of protests that it was too expensive. We managed to prevent a full-scale re-enactment of Hogarth, but even so, the first episode came crammed with glimpses of Becky in her off-the-shoulder night attire, the girls chatting in their baths - all quite gratuitous, and simply Davies's way of scrawling his signature over the film.

The other problem about Andrew Davies is his propensity to camp it up. No sooner had episode one's rather stilted preliminaries drawn to a halt and Becky been transported to Queen's Crawley than we were lost in a world of Dickensian retainers and general caricature. By the time Miriam Margolyes arrived as Miss Crawley (all pop-eyed exaggeration, in contrast to the dextrous subtlety of the book), Blackadder's shade was stalking the estate, along with Sir Pitt's gamekeepers. One half-expected Robbie Coltrane to hove into view in a badly fitting periwig, pretending to be Dr Johnson. All jolly good fun, but the novel's humour is that much more ambiguous, and correspondingly barbed. Becky's letters back to Amelia from Queen's Crawley are acidly observant, but they can't disguise the uncertainties of her position.

To do Davies and his director justice, these failings are at least as much the fault of the medium and the difficulty it habitually faces when dealing with any kind of psychological complexity. A good comparison might be with the A-grade adaptation of Trollope's The Warden and Barchester Towers in the early 1980s. Trollope, you feel, is easy meat for TV. There are good guys and bad guys; the plot generally reduces itself to a single issue; the adversarial lines are cleanly cut. Thackeray, on the other hand, specialises in ambivalent characters, mixed motives, ambiguous endings. The point about the fictional Becky, of course, is that the case against her is never definitely proved. In much the same way, her sexuality on the page is a matter of hints about bare arms and "famous frontal development". We infer her attractiveness, which consequently strikes us harder than Natasha Little's visual come-ons.

A great deal of trouble has been taken to make the film Vanity Fair a vehicle for Becky, and rightly so - she is the great anti-heroine of the early Victorian novel, and Thackeray relished her triumphs until the end of his life. ("I like Becky Sharp," he told an American interviewer years later. "Sometime I think I have myself some of her tastes.") It was a pity that the care devoted to correct pronunciation for Regency army officers ("runnin", "lettin", and so on) or constructing Miss Pinkerton's turban couldn't have been expended on persuading Natasha Little to think herself into the part. Nearly all of her gestures and inflexions - the knowing looks, the moues to camera - were those of a contemporary actress. The direction compounded this by allowing her to dominate scene after scene. Her arrival at Queen's Crawley, for instance, became a royal progress of introductions and insouciant chat, whereas the real Becky would have been expected to fade discreetly into the background.

These anachronisms are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. All through the film, even more so in the accompanying publicity, lurked the spectre of historical relativism. According to the Radio Times feature, for example, Davies believes that Becky is a "strong woman" who would be "very much at home in the 20th century". There is something infinitely depressing about this twitch on the historical fast-forward button, conceived in the same spirit that makes people declare that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing EastEnders. Becky Sharp is a Regency governess in a 150-year-old novel. Her world is not ours, and our duty to her and her creator, if we wish to imagine it, is to see it in its own terms.

The subtext of the Davies Vanity Fair is precisely the reverse of this: all done from the vantage point of 1998 - no world, of course, could be as interesting as the one we inhabit - with the past presented as a kind of pleasant sideshow got up to entice impressionable TV tourists, relevant only if it can be shown to bear some relation to modern arrangements. But the point about the past, by and large, is that it was not like now, and much of its allure lies in the gap. Vanity Fair consequently takes its place as a thoroughly up-to-date televisual artefact, undermined by all sorts of depressing modern orthodoxies about bygone life. Even as I write this, features editors are doubtless planning stories on "Becky Sharps of the Nineties", or asking their male readers if they consider themselves a "Dobbin" or an "Osborne". And it scarcely needs saying that "Sambo", the Sedleys' black footman, has been quietly rechristened Sam.

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