It was perhaps unfortunate that Gerald James, who served as the author's voice in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (ITV, 8.30pm), should bear such a vocal resemblance to the man who sells Mr Kipling's cakes. Given the fact that virtually every scene in the first half of ITV's adaptation looked like an advertisement for low-sugar muesli or herbal shampoo this was an unhelpful reinforcement of unwanted associations; indeed it was difficult in some passages to prevent a fantasised copy-line from forming in the mind - "Mr Hardy makes exceedingly good telly", perhaps. There were clearly occasions when Richard Greatrex had been consulting with painters such as Millet and Vermeer for his effects, but just as many when they struck you as having been borrowed from Hovis and Kerrygold, particularly during the scenes set at the dairy where Tess encounters Angel Clare for the second time; the timetable of bovine lactation provided a perfect alibi for the tendency to film everything just after dawn or just before dusk, so that the light could be spread like honey over the scene.
Last night, on the other hand, the sun was barely in evidence - Tess's fortunes having taken a decisive turn for the worse. Now it was a time for darkened skies and a formidable palette of greys. Even when the sun did rise it looked as if it had a hangover or was dreading what the day might bring (sorry about that, but it's been a good while since the Pathetic Fallacy had such an energetic outing, and the effect is catching). Portent came along for the ride too - though it's only fair to say that is true to Hardy, whose baleful notation of country superstitions gives perfectly good authority for shots such as that in which the innocent Tess was framed by a scythe blade being sharpened over her head. And if some of the performances betrayed a tableau stiffness the crucial central roles proved to be worth the commercial. As Tess, Justine Waddell had an amphibian beauty - at home with either of the social classes in which the story places her - while Jason Flemyng's Angel Clare made the character sufficiently racked to defeat the accusation of priggishness which is likely to arise in a contemporary audience. What that same audience will make of Hardy's sense of ineluctable fate is another matter. "What's done can't be undone," says Tess's mother starkly, after she returns pregnant from the D'Urbervilles' home - but for viewers educated daily in the fact that forgiveness and reconciliation are always possible, and often a moral duty, this may sound perverse rather than practical. It must be a long time, in fact, since ITV has risked such a bleakly unmitigated tragedy in prime time - and for that alone they deserve praise.
There will be a happy ending to Our Mutual Friend (BBC2, 9pm), but for the moment it is an even darker affair, visually at least; it began in the murk of the Thames at night and occasionally lowered the illumination so much that it was only possible to tell that someone was on screen because of the sound of their voice. Like most television versions of Dickens this one confirms that he is both an easy writer to adapt and an impossible one. Easy because the novels were conceived for serial publication (and so include a narrative line with as much tensile strength as a liner's mooring rope); impossible because the effects of his writing are so much to do with how language can work an abstract descriptive algebra. Dickens' opening description of Jesse Hexam, for instance, consists of negative statements that add up to a mysterious positive, an equation the camera, restricted to the cruder arithmetic of visible facts, simply cannot perform. When Dickens describes Lady Tippins rapping her fun against the knuckles of a hand "which is particularly rich in knuckles", the reader is offered an image which only a special effect could match. But if failure is inevitable you can still fail honourably rather than dishonourably and this looks very much as if it will do the former - with some wonderfully laconic and underplayed performances in the supporting roles. As Mr Venus, the articulator of bones, and as Silas Wegg, Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham trust the words to do most of the work and their trust is amply repaid.Reuse content