Review: Andrew Davies has changed the habit of a lifetime and cut back on the sex scenes

Fanny Hill, BBC4

By Hermione Eyre
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:48

'Fanny Hill' attracted the largest audience BBC4 has ever had. Of course it did. It has a certain something that Archaeology Night lacks. The subtitle, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, for one thing. The phrase "rosy-tipped bubbies" for another, which I am pretty sure is Andrew Davies' innovation, not John Cleland's, since I couldn't find it in my edition of Fanny Hill - or were the relevant pages stuck together? Anyway, frankly, this good-humoured production deserved to pull a crowd.

It caught something of the original's happy lasciviousness. Cleland's 1749 novel is unbelievably filthy - adapting it, Davies had to change the habit of a lifetime and cut back the sex scenes. Yet the psychology of its heroine is well done enough that it stays shy of squalor. Rebecca Night as Fanny Hill makes the most of this. She does things she does not really want to do (touchingly, in the book, she returns her bedfellow Phoebe's kisses because "for aught I knew it might be the London way") and she does not do things she wants to do (but not very often, as we may infer from the subtitle). Rebecca Night's Fanny Hill is a blushing, breathing girl; by comparison, Billie Piper's Belle de Jour is a plastic blow-up doll. I have stopped caring whether a man created the former and a woman the latter - all that's pertinent is that one is a good writer and one isn't.

I also liked the way Night alternated between a native flat Lancashire accent and a refined voice of affluence, and with enough subtlety to pull it off.

Aesthetically the production was more authentic than any period drama I've seen on television this year. Its cast of women initially looked drab and unbeautiful, until your eyes adapted to the mousy unhighlighted hair and pale unpainted faces, and you began to see as you might when stepping out of a George Romney retrospective: with an 18th-century gaze.

It is only a piece of historical fun, this Fanny Hill, as fresh and impertinent as a cream puff in a library, and yet it is worth wondering what its aesthetic says about us. In the Sixties and Seventies, film adaptations of Georgian sex romps were often - not always, if you think of Barry Lyndon, but often - garish and Technicolor, Carry On films with periwigs. Now, with our own sex culture ever more enhanced and artificial, we do Fanny Hill for realism. But ain't that just the movement of the period drama pendulum?

My only gripe with this was the adaptation. There are so many quaint little details in the book (and I don't mean the "exquisite clefts" and "mossy tendrils") that were lost here that it seemed as if Davies had tossed the book aside and written the screenplay from memory or Brodie's Notes. Why have Fanny's brutish first customer say "I haven't come here for tea" when in fact in the book they do have tea together, and he spends it "looking monkeys and goats" at her? A little speed is gained but a lot of atmosphere is lost.

Diana Rigg was once described by a reviewer as "about as vulnerable as the north face of the Eiger". This quip was put into startling context by The Beckoning Silence, which related that 60 men had died up there. The film would have been most effective as a biography of that mountain, but it kept getting railroaded into more familiar territory: Joe Simpson's personal brush with death in a crevasse in Peru, even though he must be, one would think, tiring of talking about it by now.

The film alternated between a dramatised reconstruction of Toni Kurz's 1936 expedition, and an armchair commentary on it from Simpson. The comparisons were valid - as a child, Simpson was inspired by Kurz, and both men suffered a similar accident. But the constant "I know what Kurz must have been going through here" refrain was enervating. Cervantes had it right: comparisons are odious.

There were moments when Simpson's brand of mountaineering poetry was irresistible. "The beckoning silence" is his phrase for the void that calls him and his fellow climbers, and also for the temptation of death, once hypothermia sets in. But these glints of refracted insight aside, the film was over-long, slow and windy. And the fox of suspense was shot before the film even started, when a continuity clodbrain announced this was the story of Kurz's "fatal" expedition.

Frankenstein on ITV was a trick and a treat, a freaky Halloween confection that made you laugh, a hollow, scaredy-sounding laugh with a little wail at the end. It was the same old story, updated by Jed Mercurio. Dr Victoria Frankenstein works in a biochemical lab, brewing vital organs and stirring DNA soup. Her monster looks like something out of Pan's Labyrinth. The mob is a moral majority of concerned Daily Mail readers, offscreen but constantly present. The only old-fashioned element is the monster's birthing tank, which looks like a Jules Verne submarine.

It all adds up to a ghost train featuring tableaux with your favourite actors: Helen McCrory lurching out of the dark, doing her blank, transfixed-with-terror face, then running for dear life. James Purefoy, her love-rat husband, staring in disbelief at his monster child. The three members of this bizarre unit going en famille to the beach - Dungeness beach, of course. Purefoy, shot and slumped over dead, making a tasty breakfast for a seagull. It was knowingly baroque, this film, not quite a camp classic, but a guilty pleasure for a chill October evening.

BBC4's The Genius of Photography bills itself as "a definitive history". This column has no such pretensions. It knows when it is beat. No room to cover the series here, but back next week with a definitively defining verdict, definitely.

Further reading The complete text of John Cleland's 'Fanny Hill' can be found at

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