Television Review

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The Independent Culture
LAST NIGHT saw the start of the costume-drama season. If, like me, you can think of nothing more heavenly than snuggling into a big armchair on a cold winter's night in front of the TV to watch epic narrative, sexily repressed ladies and gents, and nice frocks, you probably had a hard job deciding which of the two new mega-series to consign to the video recorder and the ignominy of a Monday night.

Both looked promising. Alan Bleasdale is responsible for the new Oliver Twist (Sun ITV), and one could imagine that his brand of true grit would give just the right contemporary spin to one of Dickens's most familiar works. Mrs Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (Sun BBC1), a lesser-known giant of 19th-century fiction, has been adapted by Andrew (Middlemarch) Davies, and might have seemed likely to be a more sedate affair altogether.

Strangely, the reverse is true: it's Davies who reveals the skull beneath the skin, the machinations of power, class, money and sex beneath tautly stretched mid-Victorian gentilities. Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) is the adored and adoring daughter of the widowed Doctor Gibson (Bill Paterson). She is 17 when he decides to remarry, choosing as his bride the governess and companion Hyacinth Kirkpatrick (Francesca Annis). While Molly and her new stepmother battle for domestic supremacy and the attention of the doctor, waiting stage left is the latter's beautiful and accomplished daughter Cynthia, who is sure to cause all sorts of trouble for our heroine in next week's instalment. Gaskell is concerned with the choices for women (limited), the contrast between the city and the south (superficial and amoral) and the country and the north (the home of authenticity and real values), and the inexorable operations of class.

In a brilliant early scene, we see Annis surreptitiously wolfing food intended for a sleeping child; her life as companion to Lady Cumnor has clearly been not only humiliating, but might also have included real hunger. No wonder Hyacinth, her looks fading, is almost hysterical with relief when Doctor Gibson makes his offer. In this society, marriage rescues women from degradation and poverty. She has only to look at the much-mocked spinster sisters Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe (shades of Austen's Emma) to see what befalls single women. Touches like these, together with extremely affecting performances from, among others, Penelope Wilton and Michael Gambon, make Wives and Daughters subtle and powerful viewing. In shades of taupe, green, white, gold and black, it also looks beautiful.

Oliver Twist starts all too dramatically, with a long shot of a pregnant girl (single mum, we surmise) about to leap off a rainswept headland before changing her mind and giving birth to little Oliver in the local workhouse. Bleasdale's first episode dealt with Oliver's grim pre-history, in which tragically neither of his parents appeared to be able to act. Sophia Myles plays Agnes Fleming, the wronged maiden, clearly cast more for her resemblance to Kate Winslet than anything else; Tim Dutton is Oliver's charming but hopelessly irresponsible and cowardly father, Edwin Leeford.

If you haven't read the novel recently enough, it might be hard to tell how much here is Dickens and how much Bleasdale. All I can say is that when Lindsay Duncan came on as Mrs Leeford by way of Lady Macbeth, poisoned her husband with prussic acid and then egged on her shuffling Igor of a son to dispose of Agnes, I just lost patience. In the hands of Dickens, perhaps this tale would become more than lurid melodrama, but the performances don't lift Bleasdale's adaptation above the most unconvincing gothic horror.

What's more, the director's steals from Carol Reed's version of the musical Oliver! go beyond homage. There are strikingly accurate visual reproductions of some of its most famous scenes, from Mr Bumble the Beadle dragging Oliver (a dead ringer for the film's Mark Lester) through snowy streets singing "Boy for sale", to his awakening in the saintly Mr Brownlow's residence in that immaculate Georgian curved terrace.

Just to put all this in context: I've cried at adverts. I'm a terrible old sentimentalist, happy to suspend any amount of disbelief, but I did not shed a single tear during the whole hour and a half. And that can't be right, not when Dickens himself had such flair for a really lovely death.

Robert Hanks is away

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