'Vanity Fair' is more than black marks on white paper

Scriptwriter Andrew Davies defends the modern aspects of his BBC adaptation
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The Independent Culture
When one adapts a great classic for television, one shouldn't expect to please everybody all the time, but I have been delighted by the generally enthusiastic critical response to Vanity Fair. Quite a surprise, then, to find myself attacked by our own "historical adviser", DJ Taylor, in last week's Independent on Sunday. There is more to this than meets the eye, however, as will appear.

Some stern purists believe, or appear to believe, that the dramatisation of classic fiction on television should simply never be attempted: all attempts to recreate the feel of the original are doomed to failure. Now this is a perfectly respectable point of view, but it is one not shared by many, not these days. And it ignores the fact that TV dramatisations draw readers in huge numbers to the book, readers who would not have otherwise thought of themselves as readers of classic fiction. It also ignores the puzzle; what is the true Vanity Fair? For a novel is not simply black marks on white paper: it is a relationship between the author and the reader, with all that both bring to it; and every reading of a novel is in its way an adaptation.

DJ Taylor seems to acknowledge this when he says that a classic serial aims to "recreate a great novel, (and) make a decent film", thus "shackling together two very different forms". Very different in some ways, certainly, but remarkably similar in others - big characters, serial publication, multiple plot strands, set-ups and pay-offs, and cliff-hanger (or desperately poignant or bitterly ironic) episode endings.

So what did we do that was so wrong? He doesn't approve of the costumes, which he wrongly describes as a late-Regency-early Victorian compromise. In fact, of course, they follow the chronology of the story, and also make subtle points about character and mood - for more detail see the Radio Times "book of the film" he refers to so disparagingly. But he wasn't engaged as an expert on costume, thank God. The sort of thing we asked him about was what sort or thing would be happening in the background and behind the scenes at Vauxhall Gardens? Would there be prostitutes, for example, pickpockets and so on? "I pointed out that Vauxhall Gardens was a middle-class pleasure garden" says Mr Taylor primly, for all the world like a latter-day Miss Pinkerton. Well, if it was exclusively middle- class, who are all those rude men who shout insults at Jos? (despised Penguin edition, page 93). Later we discovered that Vauxhall Gardens was in fact rife with whores and thieves, and a constant worry was the number of attempted and indeed successful rapes that took place along its quieter walks. In the circumstances I think our depiction of Vauxhall Gardens was quite modest.

Most of the other advice that DJ Taylor was able to offer was along the lines that Rawdon Crawley's regiment (the Horse Guards) was smarter than George and Dobbin's infantry outfit, that the country gentry looked down on City families, and so on. The sort of thing that's obvious to any casual reader of the book, or the sort of thing that "any fule kno", to quote Nigel Molesworth. We needed an adviser who could give us background that wasn't in the book; D J Taylor didn't always seen to recognise what was there on the page in black and white.

Now he talks of Thackeray's subtlety (and our coarseness, by implication) choosing as examples Thackeray's reference to Becky's "bare arms" and "famous frontal development". Hmm. More interestingly, he criticises Natasha Little's acting style as being too modern - which raises the question of what sort of acting style he would prefer in this piece. Not mid-19th century, I bet: he'd find that unbearably artificial and declamatory. What then? I guess he'd feel most comfortable with something decidedly but not ridiculously out of date - say an early Seventies style production. The trouble is, it can't be done, and nor would we be right to attempt it. This is 1998, nor are we out of it.

He raises one really tricky point though attempts no answer to it. Thackeray calls the black servant Sambo (not one of his most brilliantly subtle touches you might agree). . Eventually, after a lot of heart-searching and argument, we changed it to Samuel, for the obvious reason that we didn't want to be gratuitously offensive to black viewers. Similarly, when George Osborne chooses love over money and declines to marry Miss Swartz "the woolly headed mulatto from St Kitts" he tells his father "I don't like the colour, sir" - among other things. We cut the line and again I'm not sure we did the right thing. The trouble is, Thackeray wants us to approve of George at this point. It was one of those no-win situations - you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Finally - and I'm sure I speak for everyone involved in the production - I make no apologies for pitching Vanity Fair and Becky Sharp as a drama and a character for the end of the Nineties. What else could we have done? What else should we be about? A "governess in a 150-year-old novel?" Oh, come on. I prefer Thackeray's words: "she had been a woman since she was eight years old." A "dangerous bird", indeed - too dangerous to be confined in the gloomy cells of Academe.

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