TELEVISION: Fine if you happen to fancy a romp
Sunday 16 November 1997
The acting is well up to standard. Max Beesley makes a very pretty, winning Ewan McGregor-ish Tom, Brian Blessed is in his shoutiest role to date as Squire Western, the bullfrog mouth ever open, curses and endearments blasting from the cavity. Ben Whitrow is just-how-you-knew-he-would-be as the decent, bemused squire Allworthy, Kathy Burke rolls her eyes and talks wicked girl-talk as the maid, Honour. Samantha Morton is both headstrong and toothsome as Honour's mistress and Tom's, Sophia. And Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings have immense fun as those bewigged Hogarthian grotesques, Thwackum and Square. Oh, and Frances de la Tour is there to make up an ensemble which will be joined in future episodes by June Whitfield, Lindsay Duncan and Peter Capaldi.
And yet, despite all these strengths, I'm not sure whether I'll stick with it; for strangely, it all seems a bit pointless. Why? Because the whole thing is somehow wrong for now, somehow irrelevant. When Tony Richardson made his famous film version in the Sixties, it caught the liberated spirit of the times. And this was not a consequence of Richardson's own approach; Fielding himself might have written his book over a clothes shop in Carnaby Street in 1967, before flower power became the Needle and the Damage Done. In Tom Jones, nothing the hero does seems to have any consequences. You have sex with a girl, because (as Jones says), pleasure is good. Then maybe she has a baby, maybe she doesn't. Romp on, Tommy.
Contrast this carelessness with ITV's recent production of Moll Flanders. For Moll, sex is a difficult joy, a commodity that can save a woman from penury or plunge her into the depths. It involved negotiations and dangers as well as simple pleasure. And we, of course, inhabit a post- Aids society (Tony Richardson was one of the disease's many prominent victims), that also lives with date rape, obsession, paedophilia, abortion and unwanted kids. As well as pleasure.
So what could the BBC's Tom Jones have done about it? Well, it could have been darker. The sex could have been more urgent and perilous, there might have been more pox and more pestilence. The hateful half-brother, Mr Blifil, could have been made more of a anti-hero, perhaps. All, of course, at the expense of the text.
Although, funnily enough, one departure from the text actually served to emphasise the rompishness of Tom Jones at the expense of something more interesting. In the TV series, when buxom Molly Seagrim has a tussle in the churchyard, things degenerate into a sort of Paul Raymond's women's mud fight. After a while everyone is hilariously covered top-to-toe in treacly, comfortable, suggestive brown mud. But in Fielding's book there is no mud. Instead, Molly sets about her with a thighbone which, as was common in those days, she found lying about in the churchyard. She draws blood, and the battle - while still as funny - is much more dangerous.
Meanwhile I think it would have been better and more interesting - especially with the success of Band of Gold - to have adapted Fanny Hill for screen. Lots of pudenda, lots of narration ("his inestimable bulse of ladies' jewels"), loads of relevance and bags of plot. Remember, you read it here first.
Now, talking of commissioning sexy shows, imagine being the commissioning editor at BBC1 to whom someone pitched the idea of Holiday Reps (BBC1, Thurs). "Quentin, I have a peach! This is a fly-on-the-wall which follows several innocent 20-year-old girls on their training, and then their first faltering assignments, in those sunny resorts. The romances! The drunkenness! The appalling customers! The funny foreigners! The heartbreaks and the triumphs! It's Driving School with sex! Airport with sun! Vet School with anaesthetics! And, Quentin, Unijet have agreed to let us have access to their trainee reps! It's in the bag!"
But Quentin is an old hand, and he knows that there is a vast difference between a pitch and the reality. He well remembers those great ideas in which the Salvation Army was laid bare, or in which the world of the monastery - novices and abbots - was to be uniquely revealed, and which turned into endless, tedious half-recorded asides from Brother Damien the pighead.
So it is with Holiday Reps. The montage at the start tells us that we are with Caroline, Claire and Debbie, who are being trained by Unijet as holiday reps. But actually we don't see much of them, their training, their social lives, their tiffs with the customers (presumably, like me and you, the last thing an irate holidaymaker in Lanzarote with three screaming kids and a hotel room giving out on to the Playa Del Carmen sewage-works wants to see, is Dave, Mike, Justin and Alicia from the BBC wanting to film the whole thing), or - indeed - anything.
All we really get is a series of moon-faced, self-pitying English lasses with little sticking-power, moaning in the face of the smallest adversity that their feet ache and that they wish they were home (which, by next week's episode at least one of them will be). To understand the Louise Woodward case, then perhaps you should look no further than Holiday Reps. For, if nothing else, the series proves that this country produces Louises almost industrially by the factory load, and then does its best to export them to holiday islands and Massachusetts domiciles. And woe betide them foreigners if they mess 'em about.
Real access, to an almost unbearably painful degree, was available from the remarkable Breaking Point (BBC2, Wed). This, the first of a series of six films looking at couples who have sought the advice of Relate, was a very intimate look at the terrible frustration and seeming hopelessness at the core of the relationship between Trevor and Tracey.
Married for 14 years, with two small children, T and T agreed to let the cameras be present at their sessions with the Relate counsellor, and also to being filmed at home in the mornings and evenings of their awful time together. And it was agonising stuff. Trevor was a droopily moustached, rather selfish depressive, drowning in self-pity (but drowning nevertheless). Tracey was an insecure, overburdened and inarticulate woman, with more dynamism in her sharp nose than was in Trevor's whole body. They were very real people. When Trevor gave his reasons for not helping round the house ("I like to think about things, she likes to get on and do it," or, "I would like to come through the door and relax"), I heard my own silly voice.
There were real insights here. The way, for instance, that married couples shoehorn their time with each other into the crepuscular, hollow hours of breakfasting and bedtiming was emphasised by the natural lighting used for the filming. And, whatever Trevor and Tracey's motives for appearing in this film (whether therapy or altruism), I bet thousands of careless couples around Britain will have tuned in, seen themselves, and learnt something.
As indeed they would had they tuned to the BBC's new News 24 (cable) channel. They would certainly have seen the immediate future of news bulletins in Britain. Gavin Esler and Sarah Montague anchored an open studio, into which personality correspondents (most notably acerbic Welsh chief political correspondent Huw Edwards) came and went between the conventional reports from out in the field. Interspersed with this were longer current-affairsish discussions themed around Europe, America and domestic concerns, involving a nice mixture of experts not usually seen on the screen (perhaps they were cheap). My own favourite line was when Brian Hanrahan turned to the beautiful woman in the Europe discussion, and said with gravity, "Anne Marie Huby. You're a Belgian."
And finally, it's back to Quentin for a postcript. "Quentin! I've got a fabulous one here. How about a short film in which Kylie Minogue, naked from the waist upwards, mimes along to the 1904 recording of castrato Alessandro Moreschi?"
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