with the delicate complexities and manifest possibilities of the written word. It’s the difference, in other words, between the Bible and a Charlton Heston movie, between Homer and Brad Pitt (remember Troy?), and even between The Da Vinci Code and, well, The Da Vinci Code. Here, when the motto of the literary adaptor is inevitably “Don’t say it, show it”, the experience of the viewer is often defined by a slow and creeping awareness that something intangible, yet vital, is simply missing.
Last night I missed Thomas Hardy. Which is not to say that the first part of the BBC’s “lavish” (its word, not mine) adaptation of Hardy’s feel-bad epic Tess of the D’Urbervilles failed to tick the right tasteful-telly boxes. Fans of the corporation’s many Austen and Eliot makeovers will no doubt have been thrilled by the sight of Gemma Arterton’s eponymous and impoverished West Country heroine facing up to sleazy pseudo-aristocrat Alec D’Urberville with the ‘artfelt admonition: “We ore good people, sir, and we av ore proide!” Arterton, a future Bond Girl, was a photogenic choice, gave great close-ups, but did far too much tremulous whimpering and overplayed Tess’s adolescent naivety with wide, stage-fright eyes and exhortative delivery.
Elsewhere, the central dramatic device in the teleplay from David Nichols (a former Cold Feet writer) was the question of how long Tess – who was effectively working undercover on the D’Urberville estate in an attempt to reconnect with her faded family lineage – would last in the company of Alec before being ravaged against her will under a thick cloud of Top of The Pops dry ice circa 1984, in the middle of the forest in one of the most tastefully ambiguous rape scenes ever filmed. We knew that Alec was a potential rapist from the start because he smoked cigars, hated his mother, kept asking for kisses from Tess at inopportune times (ie, when their pony and trap was about to careen into the ditch), and because Hans Matheson had a tendency to play him with a permanently raised right eyebrow.
Along the way we were treated to the usual suspects: country dances, drunken yokels, resentful servants, gruff groundsmen and occasional verdant vistas – which was great, obviously, and very entertaining, but it just didn’t feel very Thomas Hardy. He was muckier than that, earthier, more prone to root in the blood and guts of it all. This was a man who looked at love and life and saw only “the rotten rose ripped from the wall”. Indeed, an early horse’n’cart crash in Tess is depicted in the novel with open gore, spewing blood and Tess desperately trying to cover a gaping chest wound with her hands. Last night it was just a shot of a horse rearing, neighing, then falling over, and Tess looking a bit sad. As I say, something was missing, but maybe they’ll find it in parts two to four.
Something was missing in Strictly Come Dancing too, and it was called Strictly Come Dancing. The much-hyped sixth series of this ironically chintzy and genuinely kitsch reality-competitiontalent-search-game-show began with a 60-minute promotional video for past highlights and greater things to come.
Thus, in what can only be described as a montage orgy, we were duly flashed back through all twelve weeks of last year’s series before eventually being introduced, one by agonising one, to this year’s lot: “Sixteen of your favourite TV, film and sports personalities!” Tess Daly said this. It could have been one of her many sparkling gags, or part of her irrepressible banter with wild card co-host Bruce Forsyth. But when every line is delivered through gritted teeth it’s hard to tell. Either way she must have been joking. Because clearly, if they were our favourite TV, film and sports personalities, then they wouldn’t be here, pimping out their few remaining sub-atomic specks of credibility at the Last Chance ballroom, in the vain hope of snagging a presenting job, a one-hour special or a radio gig at the least.
There was something depressing about the deadening roll call and the disparity between the status of the Z-listers and the fanfare with which they were introduced. Old timers Cherie Lunghi (she played Guinevere in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur) and Don Warrington (famous for being Leonard Rossiter’s much abused co-star in Rising Damp) in particular, seemed to find it hard to buy the garish rebranding. It meant, mercifully, that they were human.
Most of the other fame-hungry automatons, including Lisa Snowdon (“Yes, I dated George Clooney”) and Rachel “S Club 7” Stevens, were already living the dream. We can only hope that their dancing is as rich as their delusions.