Television: Rugged heroes with burn-out syndrome
Sunday 16 March 1997
The very fact that the originals have been so well-thumbed makes their adaptation risky. With so many clear and cherished ideas about what Manderley looks like, the colour of Mr Rochester's eyes, or the cut of Maxim de Winter's jib, the producers are setting themselves up to be shot at. And where the novel is a classic, with every scene (and many actual passages) somehow familar to most critics, this is doubly true.
Which is a bit unfortunate. A TV drama is very different to a book. Without the intrusive use of a narrator's voice-over, all emotions and perceptions felt by a character must be made visible through signs, hints, voice and expression. It is very easy to get wrong and even easier to create something that is not quite the novel. Given this, there are two possible responses. The first is not to adapt novels for TV; the second is to stop judging the programme by the book, and instead look at it as a bit of television. I prefer the latter.
Which is why I believe that the only really important question to be asked of Jane Eyre (ITV, Sunday) was whether the love scenes worked. Did you bring out the hankies when Samantha Morton's vulnerable face first registered and then accepted that - miraculously - she was the beloved of the rugged Mr Rochester? Was her last scene, pledging herself triumphantly to the fire-damaged hunk, a convincing display of love tinged with victory?
I think the answer to both questions was yes. This Jane worked in her own terms and the hankie was soaked.
The most significant departure from previous versions of Jane Eyre was the remarkable restraint shown in not depicting Rochester attempting to save his mad foreign wife from the flames engulfing his stately home. Was this perhaps, because - back in January - the producers of Rebecca had purloined the fiery denouement, and it would have invited ridicule to repeat the singed-hero exercise so soon. It was impracticable to steal Little Women's ending, and have Jane go off with St John to spend a decade in a missionary position somewhere, so the fire was simply skipped.
What the TV Jane Eyre did illuminate for me was the solipsistic nature of the female idea of love. Ask yourself, what is in it for Jane? Easy. Riches. Position. Power in a society that renders women powerless. And she uses that power to tame the raw brute, whose brutishness is necessary and attractive. As he sits down in front of her he flings his coat-tails back from the manly thighs and muscly buttocks; you can almost hear her subconscious making the necessary genetic calculations about the likelihood of successful reproduction. When - conveniently - he is partially blinded and loses one hand, he is rendered safe, but with all the most vital equipment intact. It's a pretty good deal.
But what is in it for Rochester? The question is not even asked, let alone answered. We simply have no idea. We understand what she wants, and that is enough. Men are as they are, who knows why? Which is expressed by the way that Ciaran Hinds was invariably shot in profile - all noble and distant. Jane was seen in three-quarter shot - far more open to us. This is a truth, of course. Once a woman decides that she loves you, it really doesn't matter what you think about it.
Fewer great romantic novels are being written today, so modern women are increasingly turning to Peak Practice (ITV, Tuesday), a show that has vastly improved over the last series.
In form this is Casualty in diaspora; it takes the hospital out to the countryside, rather than the other way around. But it is also a blatant dramatised Party Election broadcast on behalf of New Labour, extolling the virtues of community, rights and responsibilities, of hard- headed reform, mixed with a soft-hearted concern.
We are in a community general practice (The Beeches) which employs three GPs. One (Andrew) is a too-Thatcherite hunk of Liverpudlian rough-trade. The second (David) - a sympathetic smile on legs - is saintly, but unrealistic. He must be a Liberal Democrat, or even a socialist. They both require the mediation of blonde, well-spoken, intelligent Erica. She alone knows how to marry resources with objectives.
This week the district nurse (a New Labour icon if ever there was one) needs a subsidy from the practice to help her with her training. She points out (as might Mr Gordon Brown) that it is in the long-term interests of the practice that she enhance her skills. Andrew says No. David says Yes, but with nary a care about where the money is going to come from. But Erica, perfect fusion of heart and head, says that it is a desirable outcome, and that they must find the money from elsewhere. She will almost certainly fetch up as the New Labour member for the Peaks, although she ought to get married first.
But this, of course, is where Blairite morality knocks up against the needs of romantic drama. No one is let alone for long. David, the only married one, has a foreign wife who is going gradually doolally; she organises spontaneous parties and bays at the moon. It is only a matter of time before she is in the attic playing with candles, and David (like Mr Rochester) is excitingly available once more for doomed romances.
If Peak Practice doesn't do it, the other sure way to engage intelligent women in pleasant dinner-party conversation (providing that you're not a Tory from Oxfordshire, that is) is to ask them whether they have seen this week's ER (Channel 4, Wednesday).
ER is completely breathless. This week there were four one-off plots and three significant pieces of character development in one episode. Contributing to this sense of continual movement was some of the most choreographed camera-work seen outside a Bertolucci or Tarkovsky movie (oo-er, get him!). I counted five unedited elliptical revolutions around the hospital reception desk. There were no tracks visible, so it was all shot on Steadicam - a hand-held camera with gyroscopic counter-balances (meaning that the shot is always steady, even if the operator is an alcoholic with a bad attack of diarrhoea). It must have taken an immense amount of planning to get the camera and actors in exactly the right places at the right times. Unfortunately I find such camera-work deeply distracting, reminding me of the artifice when I really want to be drawn into the characters. But perhaps, with time, I'll get used to it.
When I could forget about the bloody cameras I found the utterly predictable plots utterly satisfying. There is an HIV sufferer (not her fault, of course) on the staff, so we go through the cycle of prejudice, discovery, coming to terms, an act of acceptance and (where did I put the hankies after Jane Eyre?), reconciliation. Good stuff.
I started with an adaptation of a classic book and I end with an adaptation of a modern play: My Night With Reg (BBC2, Saturday), about six gay men, their relationships with themselves and with death.
One problem with adapting stage plays for telly is the fact that emotion has be writ large on stage so that it can be witnessed at the back of the stalls. On screen, however, it must be miniaturised - otherwise it is overwhelming. But in the hands of good actors and good directors this can be accomplished, as it was here.
So we felt the gay experience of the late 20th century: randiness, outrageousness, vitality, loneliness, solidarity and early death. But these were mixed with universal experience. When - towards the end - Daniel (John Sessions) and John (Anthony Calf) weep as Bowie's "Starman" reminds them of times and people lost, any 40-year-old might also weep.
There is a last long crane shot - for the first time an exterior scene - up a tall, sunlit house, where "Starman" is playing on an unseen radio and a shirtless young boy is dancing on the roof garden, and he is all of us.
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