Vanity Fair must have seemed like a rock-solid investment for the corporation; it is unarguably among the top dozen novels written in English, and, unlike many classics, continues to amuse and entertain its readers.
What could go wrong? What could be a safer repository for the licence- payer's money, which has been flung at this project at the rate of a million quid per episode?
But, instead, it looks decidedly uncertain whether the Andrew Davies Vanity Fair will turn into a triumph, or whether it will sink without trace. His Pride and Prejudice was such a popular series that it seemed to reach people barely conscious that it had ever been a book at all. One lady, having booked her holiday to coincide with the last episode, is reputed to have telephoned the BBC begging them to tell her whether Darcy married Elizabeth Bennet in the end, or not.
On the other hand, a pounds 9m adaptation of Nostromo, no less great a novel, no less thrilling a plot, sank to barely 2 million viewers by the second episode. Viewers, it is thought, love adaptations of classic novels, but not all the time; and it seems utterly beyond the wit of the drama department of the BBC to guess what will strike home.
It would be nice to think that this Vanity Fair will sink without trace, and the BBC turn away from its obsession with making money out of these macabre exercises. It is a truly awful traduction of a novel, a tale told, apparently, by an idiot. As usual, months of research have gone into the costumes, the hair, the sets and the food, and the physical details are as exact as money can make them. But, having paid researchers to specify these heritage-industry details, it never seems to occur to anyone to get anything else right.
The music is appallingly wrong; the orchestra seemed to be playing a tango by Gottschalk at Vauxhall Gardens, and the effect was as ugly and moronic as if Amelia Sedley were wearing blue eyeshadow, or as if George Osborne had lit up a joint.
It is perfectly incredible that, even in a household as shambolic as Pitt Crawley's, the universal ritual of "taking in" the ladies to dinner would have been neglected. Becky Sharp may be a schemer on a fabulous scale, but she is certainly not a kleptomaniac, and the idea that she would bother stealing trinkets from Amelia Sedley is absurd and damaging.
And, having employed someone to ensure that Natasha Little's hair was of the right period, I wonder why they did not trouble to ask anyone whether her vowels were credible; most of the cast speak in the familiar Actress Estuary which was invented about 10 years ago, with their final l's replaced by w's, and glottal stops in every sentence. I know, no one knows precisely how anyone spoke at the beginning of the 19th century, but these accents will still give anyone over the age of 30 a jolt. The characters are not exactly of the gratin, but they are admitted to society, and thrive in it. Talking like that, Becky Sharp would hardly have got a job as a housemaid.
But this is all par for the course. It is certainly true that the BBC has not, as yet, plumbed the depths of the Hollywood adaptation. In the Forties Pride and Prejudice with Olivier, the invitation to Mr Bingley's party includes the instruction "Please bring this card with you"; I had not thought that gatecrashing was a popular pursuit in rural England in the early 1800s.
And things have not much improved since. I nearly fell off my chair when Gwyneth Paltrow, in Emma, asked Mr Knightley whether he knew that "Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill had become a couple".
Sometimes it is a cherishable naivety. Martin Scorsese's quite good film of The Age of Innocence has a fabulous misinterpretation of one of Edith Wharton's snobbish asides: when she remarks that one of the characters lives in the "wastelands" above the Park, he produces a shot of a house which appears, quite literally, to be in smoking badlands.
These are all rather sweet errors, which a bit more determined research, or the employment of more intelligent directors, would have put right. What is more pervasively damaging is the way that the directors insist on including things that could never have occurred to the authors of the novels. No period drama, it seems, is complete these days without a scene in the bath. Conversations about sex, swearing, and a great deal of ooh-Matron naughtiness get included; they are not, nor likely to be, in any 19th-century author.
To be fair, Thackeray seems to offer encouragement in this respect, with the famous passage in Henry Esmond in which he regrets that a 19th-century author cannot write about an 18th-century man in the way that Fielding could have done. But even if Thackeray would have liked to have been franker, it does not give the hack licence to be frank on his behalf. The ways in which Thackeray establishes sexual attraction and talks about sex are so powerful that we should not lightly jettison them for any number of scenes in which Amelia Sedley has a bath, or George Osborne tells Jos that "ladies piss too".
You wonder, in fact, whether the perpetrators of these horrors have a deep-rooted belief that "the past is a foreign country; they have sex more often there".
Certainly, the explanation of some of the adaptations that fall flat - Conrad, for instance - may be due to the complete lack of sex; and some of the adaptations which are commissioned head unerringly towards heritage- industry bawdiness. The recent Tom Jones adaptation had a real feeling for the novel, but still tipped the balance far too far away from the moral argument and towards the usual rumbustious squawking.
The textbook example of an adaptation destroyed by its adaptors' idiotic desire to get sex in was the BBC's Clarissa. The whole point of Richardson's Clarissa is that there is no sex in it; though the central act of the novel is a rape, the entire text is either anticipation of the deed, or an exploration of the terrible consequences. This adaptation depicted the rape, and made a nonsense of Richardson's delicate balances, his overwhelming exploration of delay and anticinpation.
Of course, this is not Vanity Fair. It is what Thackeray's age would have referred to as "Elegant Extracts", although inelegant might be nearer the mark. It leaves out most of the plot, and just follows one strand. It inevitably and horribly corrupts the imagination, so that anyone reading the book afterwards will see a particular set of faces, hear a particular set of voices. It is boringly thin and monotonous, and has, so far, no interest in irony or ambiguity, where Vanity Fair is rich, complicated, varied and matchlessly subtle in tone.
And how could it be otherwise? Andrew Davies and Thackeray are doing utterly different things. Andrew Davies is writing a historical drama; Thackeray was writing, more or less, about his society. What the BBC has the nerve to call Vanity Fair is a baffling salmagundi of Nineties accents, 1800s clothes, Wardour Street plotting, and a sort of language never spoken by any human being at any point in history. And it has no hope of lasting, since, as QD Leavis says, "to reject the rhythms of the contemporary idiom by returning to the language of the past is to sacrifice everything".
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