The recreation of agricultural England in the late 19th century was well- handled too, with hitched lifts on slow-moving carts, and the gradations of labour well-illustrated, with potato- lifting at the bottom of the pile. Given, too, that this was almost certainly all shot during the heat of last summer, a minor miracle involving a purple lens filter was pulled off, darkening the summer skies for the later scenes, set on cold, terrible days in the wind-scoured potato fields.
There were, nevertheless, three big problems with this Tess, two of which were of the director's making and one of which was well beyond his responsibility. The key scene in which Tess tells Angel the truth about her affair with Alec and her dead child - and he (having just confessed his own adventure) becomes the biggest prig in English literature by leaving her - was almost chucked away. Second, the denouement at Stonehenge was awful. The night- lighting made the real monument look like a polystyrene fake - but the moment the following morning when the couple awake to find a posse of peelers emerging from behind the standing stones - like the chorus from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta - that was truly grim.
And the last is to do with the nature of ITV. One second Tess buries a breakfast knife in Alec's torso. The very next moment, we are being advised of the virtues of the Always flexitowel (which wraps round your underclothes as you move, leaving you free to stab philanderers, then to wander round Wessex distractedly).
Still, it was a bloody good effort, even if it is unimaginable that similar errors would be made by the team responsible for an immensely accomplished Our Mutual Friend (BBC2, Mon). This is Dickens's last-completed and most cynical novel, about what happens when you have too little money, and what happens when you want more money too badly, and how having more money creates its own distinctive miseries. There has been no previous TV adaptation, and for very good reason. There are 12 major characters to be established in the opening 20 minutes, and a plot of immense complexity. But here it is handled so well - mostly through a declamation at a fashionable dinner party - that you scarcely notice that devices are being employed at all. The weight of narration is lifted effortlessly from the author's voice into the actions and words of the characters themselves.
This is vital, because there is no Arthur Clennam, no Dorrit, no Nell, Oliver or Pip for us to identify with, and through whose eyes to see the world. This is a diffuse place, in which the unifying voice would have been the narrator's - and he cannot be here (the Tom Jones-type solution of a bewhiskered Dickens popping up beside the turbid Thames or turning slyly to camera in a drawing-room armchair is rightly avoided). I watched the opening scenes three times on video, marvelling at the intricate engineering that Sandy Welch has brought to the adaptation in order to solve this problem. And solved it is.
Forget the crinolines too. The sets, costumes and language are neither fussy nor intrusive: a quick camera tilt catches a poodle lapping milk from a silver salver, while another reveals begging children in a doorway; the candlelit nights are very, very dark; the taverns for once feel like used, beery drinking places, rather than relatives of the overlit, convivial Bierhausen of the Hammer Horror movies.
The comedy is retained, and made to feel perfectly modern. Silas Wegg's meeting with Mr Venus in the latter's shop, where he re-articulates skeletons (including Wegg's missing leg) is a hoot. You can see in Wegg and Venus (Kenneth Cranham and Timothy Spall) the distant origins of all those weird, comic anthropomorphic sidekicks in Disney cartoons (you know, talking humming-birds, gargoyles, parrots, monkeys, meerkats, etc). Except in Dickens, they always have a key role to play in the plot.
Wegg's centrality lies in his relationship with the newly enriched Mr Boffin (as Uriah Heep's was in his with Mr Wickfield in David Copperfield). This begins comically, as he reads Gibbon to the well-meaning but illiterate Boffin. A service for which he is paid. "Half a crown ain't much, Mr Boffin. If perhaps you was wanting to drop into poetry ..." But Cranham retains enough menace to make his eventual villainy seem entirely believable.
There is not much to be done with the familiar (in Dickensian terms) character of Lizzie Hexam, other than for Keely Hawes to look Pre-Raphaelite and to suffer suitably. But this only adds lustre to Anna Friel, both steely and brittle, as the mercenary Bella Wilfer, one of Dickens's more interesting heroines. And, while I'm sounding like the pompous MC at a premature awards ceremony, I like Dominic Mafham's understated lawyer, Mortimer Lightwood, very much indeed.
From costume drama to no-costume drama. Last Sunday BBC2 started its Obsession series of one-off plays with Getting Hurt, a study of sexual obsession. It might have been braver to have kicked off with a dramatic insight into the obsessions of, say, dieters or exercise addicts, but as familar themes go, sexual obsession is certainly one of the more visually interesting.
Especially since this Andrew Davies effort starred the worryingly sexy actress Amanda Ooms as the (largely unclothed) object of married lawyer Ciaran Hinds's illicit desire. We last saw Ooms starring in the woman- into-wolf drama Wilderness, in which - you may recall - she introduced us all to the vulpine delights of screw'n'chew. Here, we become intimately reacquainted with the contours of Ooms (as wanton, vulnerable Viola), as well as her enthusiastic interpretation of the female climax. This latter led me to inwardly speculate that Ooms might really be an onomatopoeic Dutch word, meaning "loud orgasm".
This strange tale has Hinds cheating on - and walking out on - his affectionate, attractive and intelligent wife, because of his uncontrollable hots for Viola - who inconveniently happens to be the missus of Hinds's client, a perverted Czech photographer (famous for "wrapping women: dirty bandages, barbed wire ..."). This balding, unpleasant man is thought to have murdered several prostitutes, and the result is a kind of proxy Fatal Attraction, with the Czech hanging around the family house looking - metaphorically - to boil the bunny.
But what is the deep message of all this stuff? (This is BBC2, and I insist, as a licence-fee payer, on a deep message.) Well, it appears to be that we men are all adulterers, misogynists and murderers in our hidden hearts. So we get "I am guilty in a sense. Aren't we all?" And "I sometimes feel that the fellows that are doing these terrible things [ie, rape and murder] are doing them on our behalf." And again, "Is he guilty?" "Aren't we all?" (Once more.) Well, Mr Andrew Davies, if I'm guilty of adultery in my heart, it's partly because people like you keep parading Amanda Ooms in the altogether across my line of vision just before bedtime. Now do stop it. Oh all right, carry on ...
And there she was once more in Seesaw (ITV, Thurs), a decent, well-acted and exciting kidnap drama, starring Geraldine James and David Suchet as a happy couple whose obnoxious teenage daughter is nabbed at a disco by a pair of delinquents, one of whom is the ominously batty-looking Eva (our Amanda). This is a gal who gets her kicks weirding around, from subjecting the blindfolded victim to subtle auditory tortures (like creeping up on her and tearing paper in her ear), culminating in an off- camera (but cacophonous) bout of Ooms in the room next door.
The first episode ended just as it should, with the police in the dark, the money paid over (in a women's changing room, allowing us yet another glimpse of Ooms in a bikini) and still no sign of the daughter. So, for once I'm happy. Thanks ITV, thanks BBC, thanks trees, thanks sky, and - above all - thanks, Amanda, for a thoroughly good week's reviewing. Sometimes this job is better than any number of Ooms.Reuse content