REVIEW / The final chapter of a repeated pleasure

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MIDDLEMARCH (BBC 1) left us finally - or rather we left Middlemarch, conveyed away by the same coach that brought us in the first episode. It was a visual book-end that caught something of the sense you get, with any great book, that though the reader has moved on, the world of the novel continues on its way.

Appetites must be satisfied before a journey though, and in the book George Eliot feeds our hunger for resolution with a finale in which she dispenses largess among the characters we have become tender towards and coaxes us towards tenderness for those we have come to dislike. Andrew Davies, the scriptwriter, had wisely decided to have some of this spoken over the final scenes, so that we could finally put a voice to the presiding intelligence of the story, that large benevolence which gently rebukes the reader's smaller desires for punishment or vindication.

In The Making of Middlemarch, shown last Friday on BBC 2, (incidentally, an extremely efficient appetiser for the series, somewhat mystifyingly transmitted as it ended), Andrew Davies confessed that he had had some difficulties with the character of Mary Garth. She was just too good, he thought, and he struggled to feel warmly enough about her to bring her alive on the page. In the end the problem was solved for him by Rachel Power's winning performance, but it isn't a difficulty you ever feel Eliot shared. One of the wonderful things about the book is that it never despairs of anyone, even at the risk of stretching your credulity.

The final episodes were full of small acts of courage, 'unhistoric acts' which nevertheless disturb the lives of those who commit them and Davies' script was alert to them all. When Dr Lydgate comes forward to help the fainting Mr Bulstrode from the room, after his denunciation, the moment occupies half a page in the novel, much less than other incidents that didn't make it on screen. But Lydgate's courage, in facing out the crowd and risking his own reputation (he knows, as he does it, that it will strengthen suspicions about his own honesty) is crucial to how we judge him - he is a failure because we know him to be capable of much more, a success because he does not fail here.

Davies also seems to have known when to leave well alone. The scene in which Rev Farebrother comes to talk to Mary Garth on Fred's behalf (another of those unremarked moments of heroism, as he loves her himself) was actually a little more endangering to your composure on screen than it is in the book, where Eliot is silent about Farebrother's feelings. A scriptwriter couldn't greatly improve on what is in the novel but could very easily have spoiled it and Davies didn't. Given that so much of the emotion stems from things left unsaid and thoughts only half- resolved, I think this argues for selfless restraint on his part - scriptwriters don't get any praise for the nervous gulp or tremor on the brow.

The series was studiously old-fashioned at times, unafraid of devices such as voice- over memories and flashback, which can look a little laboured these days. But the solidity of the thing, its unflashy devotion to detail, made up for that. In my review of the first episode I poked mild fun at the prop-display in your first sight of the town but for the rest of the series the design and locations have been near perfect - when Georgian buildings looked new it was because, in the story, they had just been built. Mr Featherstone's half-timbered house, on the other hand, looked as if it needed a lick of paint, the property of a wealthy man too ill to trouble himself with maintenance.

It could be argued, as it always is with classic serials, that it all looked too beautiful, that the undercurrents of poverty and violence in the book were prettified into pageantry. But the novel's clear-sightedness is rarely waspish or bitter. In the whole production and in particular in Brian Tufano's beautifully unaffected and natural photography, you found a sort of analogue for Eliot's presence in the novel, missing little and forgiving much.

(Photograph omitted)