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



Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links