Philip Saville, the television and film director, is renowned for making trouble. He is best known for such pithy contemporary small-screen drama as Boys From The Blackstuff and The Lives and Loves Of A She Devil. It was this reputation for original, sometimes quirky work that made BBC Television choose him to direct its five-part adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, The Buccaneers. But even Saville could not have predicted the row that engulfed this middle-brow Victorian romance once it emergedthat the BBC's adaptation was not entirely faithful to the book. The serial, which has cost £5.5m to make and boasts an all-star cast including Cherie Lunghi, Rosemary Leach and Connie Booth, contains a rape scene and a homosexual episode. Neither of these events occur in Wharton's text, which follows the story of four high-spirited young American women trying to make their way in upper-crust British society circa 1870.
But Saville and his team felt entirely justified in including the incidents. They say these are true to the novel's spirit. Saville also points out that Wharton died before finishing The Buccaneers and the screenplay is based on the novelist's extensive notes.
All this, however, has not prevented some of Fleet Street's more strident leader writers and columnists from accusing the BBC of spicing up The Buccaneers simply to lift ratings. Saville denies the charge. "lt's part of the story. I haven't shot it in a way that could be called titillating," he says.
"The scenes in question are actually quite humorous. It's hardly a rape. It is an aristocratic game of drunken rough-and-tumble that goes too far. In the book she gets pregnant; I am just showing how she gets pregnant. I have never been hounded nor been asked to adjust anything I've done in order to get ratings."
Philip Saville - who looks rather like the folk singer Leonard Cohen - is one of the most talented directors working in television, a veteran who began his career in the theatre during the Sixties. For the past 30 years he has lived in what was once theartist Augustus John's home in St John's Wood, north London. His vast sitting room contains a Bohemian collage of expensive upholstery, oriental rugs, books, sound recordings and the odd mountain bike.
When Phillippa Giles, executive producer of The Buccaneers, had wanted a director "who had never made a classic serial before, and who would not approach it with too much reverence". While Saville, weary of being asked to work on endless police series (the staple fodder of so much mainstream contemporary television drama), was only too glad to oblige.
Ms Giles is famous for her provocative BBC 2 production of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but had served her apprenticeship in BBC Television's drama department working as a script editor on the Sunday tea-time classic serial.
Ever the iconoclast, Saville was (like his producer) "keen to avoid the classical approach to period drama. I did not envisage that muted, draining of the colour so prevalent in television drama of this kind. I wanted the colour to reflect the opulence of the lives of the privileged classes in the 1870s.
"The clothes worn by the women were coloured with these wonderfully vivid vegetable dyes. They were constantly trying to out-do each other with their costumes. I am not trying deliberately to inform the audience that they are watching a piece of classic literature. I would like to think that viewers are actually looking in on the people who lived in the big houses of the time."
Saville prepared for the film by studying the work of the French impressionist James Tissot, whose visual style he wanted to recapture on film. And no expense was spared on the locations. Filming took place at 19th-century mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and at a selection of English stately piles: Castle Howard in Yorkshire (most famously used for Granada's version of Brideshead Revisisted), Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, and Burghley House in Cambridgeshire.
Nevertheless, Philip Saville would hate people to regard The Buccaneers - which he describes as "a high-society Victorian soap" - as soft-focused heritage television. "I don't see this as museum television. If it comes across like that, then I have failed.
"Quite coincidentally, many of its issues are echoed by today's royal family [he is referring to the loveless marriage between Conchita Closson and the dissipated English aristocrat Lord Richard Marable]. Nothing has changed. Aristocrats are always a century behind."
Despite the controversy sparked by the new series, there is no denying that The Buccaneers, with its obvious appeal to overseas markets, lacks the bite of Saville's previous television work. It may also suffer by comparison to Middlemarch and Martin Chuzzlewit, both recent morale-boasting successes for the BBC. In the opening episode, The Buccaneers steers dangerously close to mid-Atlantic mini-series territory before recovering in the final half-hour with some much-needed depth.
"Of course The Buccaneers is safer than Boys From The Blackstuff," Saville admits, "although I didn't do it because it was safe. Having always been drawn to sticking my neck on the block, I thought it would be of tremendous interest to move down this road for a year. One doesn't always want to be an iconoclast. It is safer but it is not predictable. I think you'll find the more you watch The Buccaneers, the more you want to watch it. It draws you into its world."
That may be, but like many people working in television drama, Saville is concerned that competitive pressures are eroding quality. (The screenwriter Andrew Davies has recently accused the BBC of wanting to commission drama "like lengths of carpet".) Saville believes that "It is worrying for us film-makers because the canvas is shrinking. It's depressing when you attend a meeting and someone says we're not into doing classy drama because of our ratings."
"It's terrible to think that if you do something on BBC 1 and you get seven million viewers, then it's considered a failure. Drama is going through a crisis at the moment because of the cost. If only we could produce drama more cheaply, then it wouldn't matter that certain programmes don't achieve very high ratings.
"From a film-maker's point of view, the worst thing is that the networks love to do battle and clobber each other. The Buccaneers is bound to get clobbered [it will be competing with A Touch of Frost and Prime Suspect on ITV]."
`The Buccaneers' will be shown on BBC 1 from Sunday 5 February at 9.05pm
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