Bodice-ripping challenges Jane Austen TV cult

The genteel mood of British costume drama has been challenged by the success of ITV's Moll Flanders
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The Independent Online
The television community was last night speculating that ITV's bawdy romp Moll Flanders, which finished on Monday and featured 17 sex scenes, would unleash a spate of copycat bodice-rippers.

For its triumphant ratings success has single-handedly broken the taboo that costume drama is best a la Jane Austen: understated, genteel and very definitely sex-free.

The mid-Nineties reinterpretation of the genre, as demonstrated by Moll, has demolished that theory. Virgins can be replaced with wenches, ballrooms with brothels. Chastity is out. Sex, even incest, is in.

It is the last bastion to fall in television drama, and contrasts with the latest clean-up campaign by Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, to clean up television's act.

The four-hour adaptation of Daniel Defoe's bodice-ripper about a woman who marries five times, once to her brother, works as a pickpocket and thief and is finally transported to America won 13 million viewers.

That contrasts with the BBC elegant drama, also just finished, of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. With the emphasis on avoiding sex rather than having it, the dark story of a virtuous and unhappy wife attracted four million fewer viewers.

The moral is that sex and violence sells; and that costume drama, long seen as the special preserve of tinkling teacups, honourable aristocrats and grand country houses, has moved into new territory.

The approach is even mirrored in the Moll Flanders video of Granada's production, which hit the shops on Tuesday. Unlike the Austen spin-offs of coffee-table books with lavish pictures and diaries, the Moll video offers a chance to see the steamy sex scenes which were left on the cutting room floor.

The taste for bursting corsets has not gone unnoticed. Yesterday Nick Elliott, ITV's controller of drama, said the bodice-ripping element had undoubtedly attracted viewers. "There was a pleasantly tasteful element of sex and nudity and I know many men positively enjoyed Alex Kingston taking her top off from time to time. Don't let's beat about the bush, it was very pleasant."

Granada agreed. "Moll attracted higher audiences than any other recent costume drama, including Pride and Prejudice, and viewers that might not otherwise have watched," a spokesman said jubilantly.

So now the barriers are down, can we really expect a flood of bodice- rippers on television? Well, not yet, but executives have swung away from light and elegant period dramas with a vengeance.

Over the next few months viewers can look forward to stronger meat. ITV will show Jane Eyre - attempted bigamy, a madwoman in the attic and the suffering of a bullied orphan- and Rebecca, that tale of adultery and arson.

Also scheduled is Far From the Madding Crowd, which features insanity, murder and marital neglect, and the swashbuckling adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, Ebb Tide, with Robbie Coltrane.

The BBC mirrors the approach with adaptations of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, about a struggle to seize a haul of silver in South America, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, about the theft of a diamond, and Ivanhoe, a tale of kidnap and tournament spiced with witchcraft.

But producers still scouring the classics for bodice-rippers will find plenty of choice. The 18th century, which produced Moll Flanders, has much to offer. From Smollett to Richardson, possibilities abound.

Five of the best ripping yarns

Bodice-rippers ripe for adapting?

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Provoked complaints on its 1748 publication about its indecency and would be a scriptwriter's nightmare to adapt, but a racy epistolary tale about the dishonourable rake Lovelace's courting of the chaste Clarissa Harlowe - and how he finally rapes her.

Roxana by Daniel Defoe

Similar to Moll Flanders and by the same author, but still one to bear in mind. Roxana, the beautiful daughter of French refugees, is deserted by her extravagant brewer husband and passes from one protector to another getting extremely rich on the way. But unlike Moll, she comes to a bad end and dies penniless.

Amelia by Henry Fielding

Set in a London of almost unrelieved squalor and violence, the hero begins the story in Newgate prison; he shares a cell with a courtesan and turns to gambling to the distress of Amelia, his virtuous wife.

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

Otherwise known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, this early bestseller resulted in the author being summoned before the Privy Council for indecency. A breathless account of the less respectable side of life in the mid-18th century.

Mary Barton by Mrs Gaskell

A love story set amid the crushing working-class poverty of Manchester in the 1840s. Mary Barton is a factory girl whose virtue is under siege from the rich son of a factory owner. When he is shot dead, suspicion falls on her other poorer, suitor, Jem, who faces the death penalty.

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