Beauty and the beasts: The BBC's latest period drama has a real dark side

Forget the frills and frivolity – the BBC's latest period drama, starring Gemma Arterton, has a real dark side. James Rampton reports from the set of Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Dressed from head to toe in Victorian rustic garb, the actress Gemma Arterton is struggling to cross an extremely muddy farmyard in remotest Gloucestershire. When I point out that the hem of her costume is dragging in the dirt, she shrugs and says: "It doesn't matter. It's meant to be messed up."

It is the perfect grimy look, in fact, for this gritty new version of Thomas Hardy's most celebrated novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. BBC1's new four-part adaptation of the classic 1891 book is eschewing the prettified perfection of so many period pieces. This Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the film-makers contend, does not come from the cover of a Laura Ashley catalogue or the top of a chocolate box; it is down and dirty.

As the drama's producer David Snodin puts it, Hardy's story is certainly "not a bundle of laughs". Rather, it is a brooding tale of how Tess's (Arterton) purity is violated by the scheming aristocrat Alec D'Urbervilles (Hans Matheson from The Virgin Queen), an act that destroys her subsequent marriage to her true love, Angel (Eddie Redmayne from Elizabeth: the Golden Age). Clearly, this is a story that merits a dark treatment. There are no Mr Darcys here; this is an imaginative landscape denuded of happy ever afters.

Snodin is sitting in the garden at one of the drama's key locations, the place where Tess and Angel have an assignation. It is not an idyllic castle or an immaculate stately home but a ramshackle cottage that has seen much better days. It coheres with the "lived-in", defiantly unglamorous ambience of the drama.

"Hardy has a reputation as unremittingly gloomy, and it doesn't end well for Tess," explains the producer. "But this is not a conventional period piece. It's not all bonnets and bustles and dancing in Bath. This is a story of doomed love that has a much more earthy appeal."

David Blair, the director of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, chips in: "We've been over-Austened, because Austen sells. Austen is very clean. It's about fancy balls and grand houses. This is the opposite end of the social spectrum. It's very different from those more chocolate-boxy period dramas."

That approach is reflected in the spare script by David Nicholls, who also wrote Starter for Ten and Cold Feet. "Jane Austen is all about manners," muses Arterton, sitting on a hay bale in the farmyard. "This is about how manners mess you up. It's stripping away all of that stuff about social mores and focusing instead on down-to-earth characters. Like The Street, which David Blair also directed, it's edgy rather than highly polished. It's a simple tale with no fanciness about it."

Nicholls says that he was happy to be able to forget the elaborate hats and hairdos and concentrate on the passion that pulses through Tess of the D'Urbervilles. "When I read the book, it felt very modern and quite shocking," reflects the writer, who is a dab hand with the classics, and delivered a memorable updated version of Much Ado About Nothing for BBC1's "Shakespeare Re-Told" season three years ago.

"It's a big, passionate, violent story," says Nicholls. "A lot of period dramas are about repressed feelings and looks and whispers, but Hardy is out there. He's vocal, angry and intense. People think of Hardy as a floral, bucolic writer – on the cover of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a picture of a young woman with flowers in her hair. But this is a very powerful story. You can see why it caused outrage at the time."

The novel was rejected as too controversial by three publishers. Hardy had to rewrite the steamier passages in order to appease the puritanical Victorian censors – he even left a telling blank page in the middle of the sequence where Tess is raped by Alec. Nicholls says: "Hardy had to write within the rigid strictures of 19th-century morality, but the book is still seething with sex and violence. It covers rape, murder, the death of a child, an execution and a mother pimping out her daughter. It's also very modern to have a proactive, outspoken, working-class heroine – you don't expect that in a Victorian novel. Hardy is much closer to Ibsen and D H Lawrence than to Austen."

Arterton, 22, who is appearing as a Bond girl in the forthcoming 007 movie, Quantum of Solace, and will also feature in Richard Curtis's new film, The Boat that Rocked, agrees that this Tess will touch a nerve with modern audiences. "We all have things in our lives that are reflected in Tess. It feels so current. At first Tess is pure, and then she is blighted and goes through things that women often go through now. I know that, like her, I've fallen in and out of love."

The actress, who since leaving Rada two years ago has also starred in St Trinian's, RocknRolla, Three and Out and Lost in Austen, goes on to underline the universality of her character. "Even though Tess was written more than a hundred years ago, I have a surprising affinity with her. Like her, I'm from a working-class background and from a strong family – that's one of the reasons they wanted to cast me. She has an awkwardness in social situations and she feels that she's not like everyone else – I got that. When I was at drama school, I often felt odd and intimidated.

"You see where she's come from, and you're immediately on her side. Nobody can dislike Tess – unless they're fundamentally bitter about life. She is the archetype of goodness. You can't say, as some Victorian prudes did, 'she asked for it!'"

Snodin reinforces the idea that this story will chime with people today. "All the elements of this piece have resonances today. They must do, or we wouldn't keep filming this work again and again."

Ah yes, the previous versions. Roman Polanski directed a famous, Oscar-winning version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1979, with the luminously beautiful Nastassja Kinski in the lead – "no pressure, then!" Arterton laughs. There was also an ITV1 adaptation starring Justine Waddell 10 years ago. So is it too soon to be making it again? Not according to Snodin, who asserts that the classics can sustain countless reinterpretations – that's why they are classics.

"No one says, 'there is only one way of playing Hamlet – you can't produce that play again'," declares the producer, who has also been responsible for such memorable adaptations as Persuasion, Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations. "Every time you make a new version, it's bound to be informed by the era in which you film it. So Polanski's is a very 1970s reading. It's wonderful, but it's still a very Laura Ashley Tess. She's all flowers in the hair and hippie-ish. This, by contrast, is a 2008 Tess. It's more grounded in reality. It's more brutal and more earthy. The performance Gemma is giving is feisty and intelligent. In the past, film-makers have tended to make her a passive victim. But this Tess is bright and a survivor. That makes her very different from previous versions."

The producer adds that it may well upset hardcore Hardy-istas, but that's not his problem. "There will always be people who say, 'that's not my idea of Tess'. You will always offend purists because they don't want to see it on telly in the first place."

Blair underscores that a film is a different entity from a novel, and so it cannot be judged by the same criteria. "How many moving images are there in a novel?," asks the director, who has won Baftas for The Street and Takin' Over the Asylum. "They filmed From Here to Eternity with Natalie Wood about 30 years ago, and everybody said, 'oh, it's so faithful to the novel'. Yes, but it wasn't a very good film. A novel and a film are two completely different genres."

Snodin closes by speculating that this drama may presage a return to fashionability of Hardy's darkly disturbing canon. "Tess of the D'Urbervilles is the ultimate tragic love story. Hardy poured his heart and soul into it – he was himself in love with Tess. It's a heart-breaking story about missed opportunities. Like all the great books, everybody who reads it thinks, 'I've been there'. It touches you in places where it hurts: love, betrayal, grief, anguish.

"This is a very good moment to be revisiting Tess of the D'Urbervilles because there is a real need to explore our great authors who aren't Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. I produced Persuasion two years ago, so now I've had it up to here with bonnets. Hardy is much more visceral than Austen or Dickens, and I think we're ready for that now. If this takes off, all the other Hardys will be lining up in the schedules like jumbo jets over Heathrow."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday 14 September

Watch a trailer for the programme

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