Tonight, 9pm BBC1
Tonight, 9pm ITV
Tomorrow, 10.40pm BBC1
The evenings are drawing in and the classic serial season is upon us. Sounds cosy, doesn't it, the world of Austen, Dickens and Thackeray? But it is all part of a battle for ratings, prestige and foreign sales, openly fought this evening on our screens: a confrontation between the BBC champion, an unfinished work by Mrs Gaskell, and HTV's new version of a much-adapted early novel by Dickens. It looks less like a tea party than a clash of dinosaurs ...
Commercial imperatives drive not only the choice of material, but also the shape of the finished product. Writer Andrew Davies was asked to adapt Wives and Daughters as four 50-minute episodes, but eventually persuaded the producers to accept four episodes of 75 minutes. "It's an unusual slot and hard to sell abroad," producer Sue Birtwistle says. "But Mrs Gaskell writes in such social detail." She seemed pleased when I told her that the pace seemed fine, despite the length. Nonetheless, the serial is to be re-edited at 50 minutes for the foreign market.
Gaskell's last novel is splendid stuff for a BBC classic - with all the traditional pleasures and qualities: strong storylines and characters, a first-rate cast (Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Francesca Annis), and a variety of small-town and rural settings to show off the skills of the costume and design departments. Both Birtwistle and Davies mention soap opera; but this is chiefly to underline how approachable the story is - "like a soap, but with real depth and power" (Davies) - and based on enduring human problems to which viewers can easily relate.
The plot revolves around a familiar situation - young Molly Gibson's adjustment to her widowed father's remarriage and her relationship to her new stepmother and stepsister; typical soap opera material - though Justine Waddell, who plays Molly, admits to having been irritated at times by the 19th-century heroine's naivety. She says she finds it difficult to define precisely what makes it hard for her, as a young woman in 1999, to relate to Mrs Gaskell's characters.
Mrs Gaskell's work was very popular in her own day, and those involved in making this film agree that she has been unjustly neglected since, not-withstanding a version of Wives and Daughters done by the BBC in 1971. Nick Renton, the director, calls her "a kind of English Chekhov"; Davies considers this her finest novel, "like George Eliot at her best, without the moral strictures - it's a novel we all think is a masterpiece". He refers to the comedy around the secondary characters: "the village gossips are splendid". There is an almost missionary zeal in their eagerness to promote the book and its author, seeing the screen adaptation as a means to convince hestitant viewers that they can read and enjoy Victorian novels. Davies says that he is "hoping that people who watch EastEnders will give this a go". Omnibus tomorrow evening offers the equivalent of the preface to the paperback: a biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, a quick canter through her main works, a chat with the enthusiastic ladies (mainly) of the Gaskell Society, a trip to Rome to discover her late romance, and an assessment of her importance.
With Wives and Daughters, Davies says that he "set out to be as close and true to the book as possible", adding that nearly all the dialogue comes directly from the text. Alan Bleasdale's adaptation of Oliver Twist has an equally strong cast (headed by Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters, Alun Arm-strong and Lindsay Duncan), and comparable production values, but takes a very different approch to adaptation. Not that Bleasdale lacks respect for Dickens; far from it. He says that he was somewhat overawed by the responsibility: "I was scared at being in the big boys' playground"; and he set out to do the adaptation "honorably and well". However, there may be little sense or satisfaction in repeating what David Lean and other adaptors - not to mention Lionel Bart - have done with Dickens's text.
This Oliver opens as one would expect, with the hero's pregnant mother collapsing at the workhouse gates; but the first episode then moves into an extended flashback telling her story, which Dickens had dismissed in a few pages in the final chapters of the book. "Dickens had the genius to throw those characters away," Bleasdale says. For this adaptation he has picked them up for a prefatory tale of seduction, betrayal and murder.
The choice seems clear-cut: Davies's well-crafted domestic drama, versus Bleasdale's unorthodox take on Dickens. For the viewer, however, such a choice is spurious: we know what pleasures to expect from each of these adaptations and there is no reason why we should not enjoy them both. Except that tonight we shall have to make a sacrifice or set the video, because the BBC and ITV have decided to make a contest out of it.