Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time when BBC classic serials were tea-time affairs, a way of introducing the family to the joys of the Western canon. Since Andrew Davies started uncovering all the subtextual smut and steam, though, they have become after-the-watershed material, too dangerous to let loose on children and old folk. The trauma of seeing Mr Darcy rip his shirt off for a spot of skinny-dipping has barely worn off; now, in Davies's adaptation of Vanity Fair (BBC1, Sun), we have to cope with Becky Sharp telling her pupils at Miss Pinkerton's academy to kiss her arse (in French, admittedly) and young George Osborne explaining to a dim friend at supper that the ladies have gone out for "a piss". I've been trawling through my Penguin Classics edition, but I can't find textual authority for that one.

The objection to bad language in this sort of drama is not based on prudishness - at any rate, I'm assuming we're all agreed that the odd bit of effing and blinding doesn't detract from the virtues of Goodfellas, or even such genteel stuff as Four Weddings and a Funeral. I don't think, either, that Davies is guilty of gratuitously trying to sexy up a fuddy-duddy old story to make it appeal to a younger generation. The real problem is his presumption that he is serving Thackeray's purpose. The implication seems to be that Thackeray would have put in plenty of swearing, and probably a fair bit of explicit sex, if he thought he could get away with it - as if Thackeray were a living anachronism, a late-20th-century mind somehow misplaced among the Victorians. What's the point of period literature if we try to make it modern? You don't learn anything that way. Anyway, I can get all the swearing I want at home, just by not bothering to clean the bath after I've used it.

There were other aspects of the first episode of Vanity Fair where the 20th century seemed to have rubbed off: our first sight of the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall is of a leering, androgynous face plastered with white make-up, lips painted scarlet, while oompah-ish music played in the background. As a method of signalling decadence and licence, this comes straight out of Bob Fosse's Cabaret.

Elsewhere, some of the characters are painted with rather too broad a brush: George Osborne (Tom Ward), an army officer who is rather too pleased with himself, comes across as far too coarse to attract the affections of dainty, good-hearted little Amelia Sedley. All the same, the first episode did grip the attention, mainly because of Natasha Little's Becky Sharp, a saucy little minx with a way - several ways, in fact - of cocking a delicate eyebrow that is both bewitching and expressive of thoroughgoing wickedness. And not everything modern is bad, either: there is a sort of blankness in Little's performance, a hint that at the heart of this young woman on the make there is a big empty space. Once upon a time, actors would have searched for her motivation; giving her none seems truer to the part.

And the picture has any number of shrewdly observed details, such as Becky's perfect alabaster complexion, or the ragged army haircut framing Captain Dobbin's earnest face. Fair to middling so far, with hopes of better to come.

Another scheming minx, or possibly not, in The Full Monica (C5, Sun), which attempted to answer once and for all the question: "Stalker and seductress, or just a kid who's made a terrible mistake?" Monica Lewinsky's personality has been debated for months now - and it wasn't, in all honesty, that complex or interesting to begin with - so finding enough new material to fill out an hour must have been a challenge. The programme made the most out of what it had: a poor quality video of the teenage Monica competing in a talent contest was evidence that she "grew up craving attention". Hmmm - so what do we make of the other half-dozen children on stage with her?

But there were some revealing, and slightly pathetic, moments - the itemised list of household outgoings prepared as part of her parents' alimony settlement, including expenditure on Monica's dermatologist, nutritionist and psychiatrist. In the end, it seemed beyond question that she is a deeply mixed-up kid. The real question was, what was Clinton doing with such an obvious screw- up? The words "error of judgement" spring unbidden to mind.