The Weekend’s TV: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sun, BBC1, Massive, Sun, BBC3

Reviewed,Robert Hanks
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:15

The main thing to say about Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that it looks lovely, which is the point of any costume drama: fidelity to Thomas Hardy’s bleakworld-view isn’t going to shift overseas broadcast rights and DVDs; it’s frocks and rolling countryside you want. Possibly it’s a bit too lovely. The opening scene of David Nicholls’s adaptation had Tess and the other local maidens dancing around in their best frocks on a picturesque if inconvenient clifftop, wearing more gleaming white fabric than in a Persil advert. This is the problem for costume dramas: they can’t afford to remind the viewer too explicitly just how grubby and laborious life was in the days before indoor hot running water, automatic washing machines and biological powder, and there’s not muchpoint in complaining about it.

Still, in one respect, Nicholls’s adaptation was notably, and I think wrongly, sanitised: the point at which Tess becomes, in Hardy’s phrase, “maiden no more”. The story – apologies if you know this – begins withTess’s father, John Durbeyfield, being told by the local parson that he’s a scion of the D’Urbervilles, one of the oldest and, long ago, richest families in the county. With his horse dead in an accident, and the family desperate for money, Tess (Gemma Arterton) consents to visit the wealthy D’Urbervilles at their seat a few miles off, introducing herself asacousin. Here she meets the suave Alec D’Urberville. I can’t help wishing that Hans Matheson had the curling moustache that Hardy makes great play with, but even with a smooth upper lip, his lascivious leer pushes the envelope of caddishness. At his first glimpse of Tess, you could almost hear his inner monologue drawl “Ding dong!” He has her taken on as manager of the estates poultry – largely, as everybody but she immediately works out, so that he canexercise his charms on the spot.

After a night out at the local village, Tess gets into a row with drunken workmates, envious of her favoured status. Alec duly pops her on his horse and they ride off, but he then pulls the equine equivalent of the old “Oh dear, we’re out of petrol” line. Left alone while he supposedly looks for help, Tess falls asleep. Alec returns, finds her and... well, the rest is left to your imagination, both in the book and, to a surprising extent, in the television version. As filmed by David Blair, this was one of the murkiest things I’ve ever seen, physically if not morally. Tess’s profile was a shadow only slightly paler than the night around her; Alec, bending over her, loomed only a shade darker than the trees. To film it so indistinctly must have taken some nerve (most of us want to see what’s happening on our televisions), but sadly the ambiguities of the image didn’t extend to the soundtrack, where Tess could be heard screaming in protest. You were left in little doubt that this was a rape, not a seduction; but this certainty isn’t in the original. In the book, confronting Alec,Tess tells him that if she loved him, she wouldn’t loathe herself so much “for my weakness”; television preserved the exchange, except for those three words.

What goes on here is the idea that Tess might have given in to Alec, that the distress she suffers is shame rather than the trauma of a victim. We can’t, apparently, cope with the idea of sinanymore, only with crime. This kind of whitewashing is infinitely more distorting and depressing than any amount of physical prettification. The television version has a lot on its side: the locations are, as I say, pretty; Arterton is gorgeous; the music – pastiche Vaughan Williams – is, admittedly, a bit sickly, but the narrative strolls along easily enough; and the acting is mostly fair to middling. The exception is Anna Massey, who is quite brilliant as Alec’s ancient, blind mother, bringing a natural querulous authority and slyness that wipes everybody else off the screen; sensibly enough, the script has beefed her part up a fair bit. But judging by the first episode, it seems that the Victorian country boy Hardy was more broadminded about sex, more prepared to allow his heroine some failings, than cosmopolitan 21st-century television types. Go figure.

According to the Radio Times, Massive is a “hip” new sitcom about Mancunian mates setting up a record label. But I am well past 40 and a dedicated Radio 3 listener, and there wasn’t a single pop reference here I didn’t get – what sort of a definition ofhipnessisthat? The mates are Shay and Danny, played by Carl Rice and Ralf Little, who evidently hasn’t been deported to the Moon in reprisal for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps after all. We have a sorry excuse for a legal system in this country. Damian Lanigan’s script has a sprinkling of good lines, mostly delivered by Johnny Vegas, as Shay’s thieving dad. “Prison’s all right,” he said. “Couple of years, read a book, do some sit-ups and out the other end.” But too many of the jokes are predicated on the assumptions that fat girls are unattractive but frequently gagging for it, and that alcoholics do the funniest thing.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments