The BBC has long been the preserve of wonderful literary adaptations. How can I go any further without mentioning Pride and Prejudice – Colin Firth, pond, wet shirt, you know the rest. It was one of those dramas where, during its transmission, British streets were deserted, shops emptied and waiters sat waiting for trade. Such devotion to a telly programme hadn’t been seen since the 1980s when Brideshead Revisited, an ITV production, went out.
However, the BBC has largely dominated. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which aired in 2004, starred the hugely handsome Richard Armitage. He had a similar effect as Colin Firth on British women’s pulse rates. In fact, the BBC website crashed after the first episode as millions of women tried to log on to find out more about him. North and South was an edgy drama, filmed with a handheld camera to give it a more realistic, documentary feel. It seemed somehow fresh – clever for a 150-year-old novel.
The Beeb took a slightly different tack with Bleak House. It was filmed like a soap opera with short, punchy episodes – each one ending on a cliff hanger. In fact, exactly how Dickens wrote it in a weekly magazine, leaving each section on a knife-edge, tugging his readers back for more. Bleak House also used the handheld camera technique along with rapid sound effects to hit home a point.
By Christmas 2007, we had Cranford. This time there were no heart-throb actors, no wacky camera angles and no strange music. Just a host of grand dames from the acting world: Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton all decked out in their bonnets and bustles. Cranford was all about village life in the 1840s, peopled with gossipy characters, resistant to change. The style was parochial, the comedy gentle - perfect for a Sunday evening and a ratings winner.
However, it’s possible we may have reached saturation point. The recent adaptation of Little Dorrit was not as big a success as other similar productions. It was filmed in a ‘soap’ style like Bleak House but it was on at irregular times and the whole series seemed to go on for too long. Maybe it’s time for a change and this is perhaps where ITV and Channel 4 could step up to the mark.
The 2008 ITV drama Lost in Austen was an intriguing idea! A 21st century girl finds herself, inexplicably, in the world of Pride and Prejudice posing as a friend of Miss Bennet (with whom she has swapped places). As the story develops, she is frustrated as the plot keeps going awry and the wrong people marry each other. It was really entertaining especially when Mr Darcy came back to modern London and had to board a bus!
Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore, set during the English Civil War and Commonwealth period when England was briefly a republic (1640-1660), was gripping. It followed the life a fictional character, Angelica Fanshawe, and her interaction with historical people such as Oliver Cromwell and Charles 1. Elements of magic realism (Angelica keeps seeing the Devil) made this costume drama original and worth watching and maybe heralds a new era.