Review: TV: jack O'sullivan

`Tom Jones' is essentially a bloke thing. Sophia, whose frustrated love affair with Tom anchors the plot, is the sought-after virgin... The rest of the women are roughly divided between whores and matrons

Tired of the latest Jane Austen on a Sunday night, all that urbane, feminine, Regency humour, carefully dissecting social mores? Looking for something a bit raunchier, but nonetheless period? ITV whet the appetite with the sexual indiscretions of Defoe's Moll Flanders. Now the BBC is tickling our fancy with Tom Jones (BBC1). It's a bawdy romp telling the tale of a village foundling, raised in the squire's house, whose passions always get in the way of prudence, yet inevitably elevate him above the stuffy hypocrisy of his enemies. So there are plenty of bare backsides, heaving bodices and bulging pants.

The naturalism of the cinematic Somerset landscape is the stuff of Gainsborough while, in the foreground, the caricatures haunting our hero's life are worthy of Gillray - such as the fat, sadistic clergyman, Rev Thwackum (Brian Blessed) or the charlatan intellectual, Mr Square (Christopher Fulford), whose claims to be a philosopher are as empty as his head. Tom's malevolent rival for love and inheritance, the vile Blifil, who wraps himself in fake virtue, would raise hisses at a pantomime. In all this, Simon Burke's dramatisation is faithful to Henry Fielding's original, a book that heavily influenced Dickens and which Victorian men coveted, while keeping it from the eyes of women and children.

But Fielding has his limitations. If you want interesting female characters, go back to Jane Austen, because Tom Jones is essentially a bloke thing. Sophia (Samantha Morton), whose frustrated love affair with Tom anchors the plot, is the sought-after virgin and has little opportunity to present herself in three dimensions. The rest of the women are roughly divided between whores and matrons.

The other problem with Fielding is form. As an early novelist, Fielding couldn't let go of a narrator popping up now and again for an ironic comment on the proceedings. Whereas Defoe used Moll Flanders, speaking in the first person, for this role, Fielding employed himself for the task. So in this adaptation, you have John Sessions, in a funny wig, as Fielding, occasionally appearing to help the plot along - in way which I found plain irritating. The Oscar-winning 1963 film of Tom Jones likewise succumbed to Fielding's device, but this didn't matter so much since the drama itself was dominated by Albert Finney's superb performance as Tom. This time, Max Beesley's Tom strikes a rather effete Hugh Grant-like pose. He'd need to get a bit more lustiness into the character for future episodes if we're really to believe there is all that lead in his pencil.

Today, the few echoes remaining of the Crimean War are street names like Raglan Road, pubs called The Alma and bankrobbers wearing balaclavas. The fact that Sean Bean's Sharp retired after Waterloo has left this nineteenth- century war in obscurity. Only the continuing battle over who runs Jerusalem and the Balkans is an oblique reminder of what led to this bloodbath. However, a new study of the The Crimean War (C4), the savage conflict over Russia's attempt to carve up the Ottoman Empire, takes a fresh look at what was perhaps the first modern war. For the first time, folks back home actually learned of the horrible realities and military incompetence, thanks to the presence of war correspondents, photography and Florence Nightingale. And the scale of death - a million men in two years - was on an almost twentieth-century scale.

The programme succeeds in making immediate a conflict that used to be confined to "Look and Learn" comics and boys' annuals. Excellent archive photographs of demoralised troops, armadas of ships and the decaying state of ancient Constantinople came as a surprise. You imagine this time as being pre-camera. I was also amazed to discover that, in those days, tourists took private yachts to watch the great sea-battles and bombardments. The Russians provided champagne and chicken for their VIP voyeurs. A Mrs Fanny Duberly actually toured the battlefields on her horse. All of which makes watching wars on CNN a bit tame.

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