Fresh notes on a scandal: BBC4's adaptation of Women in Love has a distinctly female focus

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A spot of word-association. What springs to mind when you read the following: DH Lawrence, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover? It wouldn't be the wildest guesswork to suggest that Women in Love might be twinned with naked wrestling, Alan Bates and Ollie Reed grappling by the fireside in Ken Russell's 1969 movie, or Lady Chatterley with that 1960 obscenity trial. As for Lawrence himself, he has become almost totally synonymous with sex – an earthy, unrestrained, would-you-let-your-servants-read-it kind of sex, that is against the sniggering Carry On tradition of the British psyche. No wonder the French seem to appreciate him more than we do.

This Lawrence is akin to the tabloid press dubbing Dennis Potter "Dirty Den", highlighting the sex to the exclusion of all Potter's other concerns, although it has to be admitted that Lawrence's books do lend themselves to pornographic interpretations – or they did back in a time when soft-porn films required plots. And it's no surprise that the great flowering of Lawrence adaptations took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, riding the wave of new-found sexual permissiveness. And feminism was also burgeoning at this time, with Lawrence being dismissed as phallocentric, or even misogynist. As Germaine Greer wrote last November, on the 50th anniversary of the Old Bailey trial of Lady Chatterley ("a thoroughly nasty book"), "Lawrence has much the same view of women as Stephen Fry".

All in all, it now seems impossible to come to Lawrence with an open mind and a willing heart, but that's exactly what a new BBC4 drama has attempted to do, despite a BBC trailer that is a montage of sex-scenes pandering to the common notion of Lawrence being purely (or impurely) about one three-lettered word, and a not a few four-lettered ones.

In fact, against all the odds (not least budgetary) this new Women in Love is a bit of a triumph. Adapted by Nottingham-born screenwriter William Ivory (Common as Muck, Made in Dagenham), his three-hour collation of Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915) and its quasi-sequel Women in Love (1920), seems to me to have come closer to Lawrence than any earlier adaptation, even Ken Russell's by-turns lauded and derided 1969 screen version.

"There's a lot of stuff that's quite different and I changed the order and all that," Ivory told me. "And I know that if Lawrence were to walk into this room now he'd say, 'oh, you bugger'. But he'd know why I'd done it – I tried to be in his skin as much as possible."

Glenda Jackson, as headstrong artist Gudrun Brangwen, may have won the Academy Award for Women in Love, but Russell's 1969 version is dominated by alpha-males Bates and Reed, as the repressed homosexual Rupert Birkin and masterful mine-owner Gerald Crich.

Ivory's adaptation brings Gudrun and her schoolteacher sister Ursula back fully centre-stage, and allows a new generation of actresses the chance to inhabit two of the great female characters (pace Greer) in English literature. Rosamund Pike and Rachael Stirling are the duo following in the footsteps of Jackson and Jennie Linden. I'm not sure I entirely buy them as sisters, or even as coming from the same socio-economic class, but they offer nicely contrasting styles of performance and temperament.

"I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was younger, but only for the sex bits," admits Stirling, who gives the more instantly engaging of the two performances (Pike is arguably more subtle). "I think people get drawn to it by the prospect of 'naughties'," she continues. "But what they find is his extraordinary comment on society at the beginning of the industrial age, and about women enjoying their sexuality, or discovering their sexuality. I think Lawrence was a realist and that that reality still exists, and I think that's why he still speaks to us.

"It certainly ticks all the boxes about what you're looking for as an actress. There was no day when I woke up and my heart sank and I thought, 'oh God I've got to film that awful dialogue and that awful scene today'. It was all delicious to do" – even the inevitable nudity and sex scenes, the latter shot with an honesty that will go over the heads of those, as Stirling puts it, "watching it waiting for tits and arse."

The 33-year-old actress made her name with material like this nearly a decade ago, in the 2002 lesbian costume drama Tipping the Velvet. "I felt that Tipping the Velvet was an important story to tell, and if that meant swinging from chandeliers in the buff, so be it," she says. " I think the same with this. I know a juicy part and nudity won't put me off... not yet. Maybe one day. Anyway I don't look like a childlike creature when I'm naked – I look like a woman and I think it's important to put that on telly."

Rosamund Pike is altogether more reticent about taking her clothes off for the camera. "I don't particularly find it liberating," she says. "I'm not really an exhibitionist at heart. I have no desire to give everybody everything, I really don't. Anyway, Gudrun is a great part and I knew that Miranda [Bowen, the director] wouldn't screw us over – I had great trust in her, she's a very cool girl."

Pike was the actress who came "from nowhere" to play the Bond girl in Die Another Day (actually she came from Wadham College, Oxford, with a II:i degree in English, having won a scholarship from Iris Murdoch's old school in Bristol), before graduating to big screen roles in Pride and Prejudice (where she met her one-time fiancé, the director Joe Wright), and Hollywood movies opposite the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis. She has also proved her thespian mettle (as well as her willingness to perform naked if necessary) on stage in Terry Johnson's Royal Court production of Hitchcock Blonde, as the preacher's daughter in Tennessee Willliams' Summer and Smoke and, more recently as Hedda Gabler.

"I had quite a lot of success at a young age, which was great, but I think people were quick to say, 'OK, well, that was very lucky,' when actually I think luck had nothing to do with it," she says. "I've been working towards this since I was tiny, although I wasn't a stage brat. People think you got a lucky break, but now I think I'm getting a bit of respect for the first time."

It is deserved respect on the evidence of her beautifully restrained performance as Gudrun – less brittle than Glenda Jackson's Oscar-winning portrayal and more vulnerable. "I've always quite wanted to follow in Glenda Jackson's footsteps... I love her whole irreverence to the industry," says Pike in her disconcerting manner, in which sentences are left hanging, unfinished. It makes her seem vague, but you come to realise it's because she's still there, pondering her replies.

Pike and Stirling are part of a small cast that includes the excellent Rory Kinnear as the repressed Rupert Birkin and Joseph Mawle as the mine-owning object of Birkin's passion, Gerald Crich. The naked wrestling here takes place in the sea, not in front of a blazing log fire. "Ken Russell was much more thoughtful," quips Mawle, who played Jesus in the BBC/HBO mini-series The Passion. "I was more worried about whether there were sharks in the sea than I was about being nude."

This Women in Love wasn't filmed in England, but, like so much TV drama these days, in South Africa. Producer Mark Pybus insists that the decision to film near Cape Town instead of in Nottinghamshire was a creative one, and not simply because of the Republic's tax breaks and a competitive exchange rate.

"The production company that made this, Company Pictures, also made The Devil's Whore, about the English Civil War, and that was filmed in and around Cape Town and I guess I was confident it would work," he says. "What was more daunting was Billy had written the end of the Women in Love script as the Alps, as per the novel, and obviously that wasn't going to happen."

The Namibian desert stands in for the Alps in this version, a hot wilderness replacing a frozen one, the country being well-known to director Bowen, who spent part of her childhood there. "Even so I was dubious as to how I was to make South Africa feel like the muddy Midlands," she says. "It's amazing what you can do with plenty of cow parsley."

Stirling also was surprised by the choice of location. "You have to be careful filming a close-up at 6.30 in the morning – by 7.30 the mist has lifted and that person has got a palm tree growing out of the back of their head. But that means you have to creative about how you film it and that's where Miranda came into her own. Sometimes, if you've got a huge great budget, you're almost spoilt for choice and things can become unfocused, whereas this – no budget... got to do eight pages a day... we're filming in Cape Town... somehow genius comes out of every pore."

There's no denying that once you know it's filmed in South Africa, you can't help noticing it – whether it's the shape of the trees or the warmth of the light – but fortunately it doesn't matter. Women in Love isn't one of those costume dramas in which steam trains puff through green meadows or the camera lingers on stately homes and manicured lawns.

"The incredible thing about Lawrence was that he really did live it," says William Ivory, who spent several years on his adaptation. "He was nuts... a hard man... a difficult man... but he really did believe that what he felt could happen at that point of orgasm was quite profound."

But what about the perennial charge against Lawrence, that he was a misogynist? Producer Mark Pybus couldn't disagree more.

"When you read the books that we've done, particularly The Rainbow, these are incredibly strong female characters that no one else at the time was writing. The whole book is about women taking the initiative, and yet this man is accused of being misogynist. It's totally the opposite – he writes beautiful female characters."

Much more so, indeed, than the essentially rather passive female characters – even, to some extent, Glenda Jackson's Gudrun – in Ken Russell's Women in Love. Bowen says she was undaunted by directing in the shadow of Russell. "I think that film is made with a particular language that is endemic to the Sixties and Seventies film-making," she says. "In fact it really convinced me that now is really good time to attack those books again.

"I hadn't read Women in Love since I was 16, and when I picked it up again I was shocked by how contemporary it felt. In a post-modern world we're so used to the idea of fractured language and fractured thought – that's rife. He repeats himself, ideas tumble around his head... the language feels feverish at times, the language itself feels incredibly visceral, and actually I think now is the best time ever to read Lawrence."

Which is what I decided to do before I interviewed Ivory and the cast, reading The Rainbow for the first time, and re-reading part of Women in Love. I didn't envy Ivory having to dramatise what is in effect one long stream of consciousness interspersed by shattering salvos of action and dialogue. But he has done a brilliant job.

"I liked what Lawrence was as a writer," says Ivory, "what he stood for – essentially, abandon and a lack of the cool, ironic detachment which seems to so delight current, post-modern audiences but which drives me mad. Lawrence is unashamedly there, pronouncing and pontificating, every word coming from deep within himself, utterly heartfelt and damning of self-restraint. He wore his heart on his sleeve and therefore left himself exposed to the easiest, and most cruel, forms of criticism.

"My producer, Mark Pybus, felt, as I did, that if we were to tackle Lawrence at all it had to be in the most Lawrentian way... Our sole task was to interpret these books so that their heartbeat could be felt; and Lawrence's too."

'Women in Love' begins on Thursday at 9pm on BBC4

The literary gold at the end of The Rainbow

In the mid-1970s, at the height of the feminist backlash against the cult of DH Lawrence as visionary and moralist, the novelist and critic Angela Carter wrote a scorchingly funny essay about Women in Love. For Carter, when Lawrence fixates on the taste in coloured stockings shown by sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen, he "probes as deeply into a woman's heart as the bottom of a hat-box". Yet Carter's passionate scorn shows the depth of engagement with the book, and with the man. Later, she would salute Lawrence's "moving and profound" novels of social upheaval and sexual transformation, and pay tribute to their powerful hold on her. Her eloquent ambivalence more or less sums up the state of play with Lawrence's reputation. He still won't lie down and stay quiet.

The new BBC dramatisation of Women in Love honours his intention by treating that book and The Rainbow, published five years earlier, in 1915, as seamless. That is how he wrote it (largely in suspicious Cornwall with his German wife Frieda) as the First World War raged. The five-year hiatus came about thanks to Lawrence's first major brush with the punitive, censorious, official England that he came to detest. Prosecuted for obscenity, The Rainbow was burned on the order of magistrates.

Between the start of The Rainbow and the end of Women in Love, Lawrence moves fast in the preacherly direction that once won him followers, and now leaves many readers cold. "The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire": cue the lush and warm family saga that carries the clan over the decades into the modern world, which Ursula and Gudrun embrace in their rival fashions. For all its (for the time) explicitness about sexual love, The Rainbow belongs in that sturdy English tradition that draws the land, the family and the questing individual into a pattern that still makes sense in a turning world.

Now cut to the bleak and wild close of Women in Love, with the "white death" in the Tyrolean Alps of Gudrun's lover, the coal-mining heir Gerald Crich. His mourning friend, the school inspector Rupert Birkin (whom most critics take as something of a Lawrence mouthpiece), reflects not only on the the cold, blue body of his soulmate but the fate of humanity itself on an ever-evolving planet: "The mystery of creation was fathomless, infallible, inexhaustible, forever. Races came and went, species passed away, but ever new species arose, more lovely, or equally lovely...The fountain-head was incorruptible and unsearchable." We've come a long away from a sluggish Erewash.

Fragmented, intense, an Expressionist shadow-play that lurches between symbolic set-pieces with the voice of the feverish prophet always audible, much of Women in Love moves into the "late Lawrence" mode, which divides readers much more sharply than his early work. Yet his prose echoed his world of industrialised warfare and its deep crisis of faith in God and man. The lad from Notts had no choice but to move with his terrible times, however violently, even clumsily in places. It's still worth keeping pace with him.

Screen passions: DH Lawrence on film

The Fox (1967)

Director Mark Rydell transposed Lawrence's novella, about two women (played by Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood) living together on a farm, to remote rural Canada in the 1960s, earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for his delicate handling of a saga of sublimated Sapphic desire.

Women in Love (1969)

With Oscar-winning Glenda Jackson as Gudrun and Jennie Linden as Ursula, Ken Russell's daring but dated adaptation with the naked wrestling scene featuring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed – and Bates's suggestive dinner-table trick with a fig.

The Rainbow (1988)

The year before Ken Russell returned to DH Lawrence with his disappointing cinema version of the 'Women in Love' "prequel", the BBC made this more restrained TV version, with Imogen Stubbs as Ursula.

Lady Chatterley (1993)

Russell again, but his BBC four-parter was "more Danielle Steel than high culture showpiece", according to one critic. With Sean Bean as the lusty gamekeeper, Mellors, Joely Richardson as her ladyship and James Wilby as her war-wounded impotent husband. The tabloids had a field day.

Lady Chatterley (2006)

The very first screen version (in 1955) of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' was French, the poster screaming: "Now you can see it!". This 2006 film, the best, is also Gallic, hardly surprisingly when, while the book was banned in England, the French were freely allowed to read it, four-letter words and all.