Inside Story

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Versions of ourselves

Richard Johnstone considers the art of screen adaptation – with and without a literary source

Richard Johnstone 2 June 2011 2545 words

Anna Maxwell Martin as Sarah Burton in South Riding.

South Riding
Dramatised by Andrew Davies | BBC DVD | £12.99

Downton Abbey
Created by Julian Fellowes | Channel 7, Sundays at 8.30 pm

“PEOPLE like bonnets,” says that master of the delicate art of adaptation, Andrew Davies, in a 2009 interview for the Radio Times. “I don’t think you can underestimate [the importance of] that,” he adds, lamenting a decision by the BBC to axe his planned versions of Trollope’s Palliser novels and Dickens’s Dombey and Son, evidently on the managerial and marketing grounds that the nineteenth century is due for a bit of a rest. The new preferred century for adaptation is the one we’ve only recently finished. “They’re certainly putting the stress on the twentieth century,” Davies says. To demonstrate that these things go in cycles, Davies himself – best-known for his takes on warhorses like Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice – began his long career of converting the written to the televisual by focusing on rather more contemporary sources, including a successful thirteen-part series in 1980 based on R.F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days (1972), and an adaptation a decade or so later of Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, which was first published in 1956.

What these two series have in common is their concern with the worlds of teaching and academia – a concern shared by other works solely by Davies, including the brilliantly original A Very Peculiar Practice, first aired in 1986, still among the best of all attempts to capture on film the arcane world of higher education. Unlike policing or emergency ward medicine, these professions are not normally considered inherently dramatic. As Davies (himself a teacher for over twenty years) has demonstrated, this can be a shortsighted view. Indeed, given its episodic nature, measured out in periods and terms and semesters, the business of teaching might have a certain natural affinity with the television series, the large drama made up of a sequence of smaller, self-contained ones. Whatever the exact nature of the attraction, Davies returns to teaching – and to the twentieth century – with his adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s best-selling and never-out-of-print novel of 1936, South Riding.

Holtby, the daughter of the first woman alderman in Yorkshire, was a successful writer and journalist, and a public advocate for all forms of equality. In South Riding she underlines the essential bravery and nobility of careers in teaching and, perhaps more controversially, local government. In both lines of work the individual is, ideally and idealistically, subsumed to the greater good, dedicated to improving things for future generations. In her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009), Holtby’s goddaughter, Shirley Williams, relays her early childhood memories of the godmother who died, at the age of thirty, shortly before the publication of her best-known work. “For Winifred,” says Williams, a former Labour government minister and joint founder of Britain’s Social Democratic Party, “local government, far from being lacklustre, involved itself in the deepest hopes and fears of its community.” The central figure in South Riding, Sarah Burton, is similarly involved in the “hopes and fears” of her community. The newly appointed headmistress of Kiplington Girls’ High School, she is a visionary for whom “the passion of all crusaders, missionaries and saviours tore her soul.” Sarah’s milieu is local, her allies and adversaries the various members of the local council and the community who populate, sometimes to a confusing degree, the pages of the novel.

Indeed, as if to demonstrate its suitability for adaptation, South Riding begins more like a play than a novel, with a list of characters running to 168 names, or 169 if we count Rex, an Alsatian dog. One of the main tasks of the screenwriter or dramatist is to reduce this cast list to a manageable level, sufficient to convey the focus on and interactions of the wider community, but not so numerous as to overshadow the principals and generally cause confusion. The first cinematic adaptation, rushed out in 1938, directed by Victor Saville and written by Ian Dalrymple and Donald Bull, comes in at just under an hour and a half and along the way plays fairly fast and loose with the plot. But overall it captures much that is essential to the original work – the passion and foresight of Sarah, the fragile but resilient nature of community, the tension between those who advocate change and those who resist it. Its biggest failing is in the flat treatment of the one character in the novel who comes close to outshining Sarah – Alderman Mrs Beddows, septuagenarian and pillar of the community, who is based closely on Holtby’s mother. But as if to show that you can’t please everybody, Alice Holtby hated what she saw of herself in the book. She much preferred the film version.

For those who engage in the process of adaptation, not pleasing everybody is part of the job description. “Was I the only one to notice,” asks one viewer of Davies’s South Riding, in a post on the BBC website, “that the calf born towards the end of the program had a modern plastic ID tag on its left ear?” For many fans of the original novel, the current television adaptation is just too modern. For them, the 1974, pre–plastic tag version produced by Yorkshire Television is the gold standard against which Davies’s version must compete. Adapted by the novelist Stan Barstow, with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah and Hermione Baddeley playing Mrs Beddows as a “character,” it runs for thirteen hour-long episodes that could feel, if watched one after the other, rather longer than the book.

Sticking closely to the original, this version probably seems even more faithful now than it did when it was first aired, thanks to that phenomenon whereby, with the passing of time, historical drama on film blurs more and more into the era it represents, and becomes harder to distinguish from it. The preponderance of long shots, taking in groups of characters as well as the surrounding landscape, seems to emphasise interaction and interdependence, rather than a more contemporary focus on individuality. Camerawork, acting styles, lighting, are all identifiable as old-fashioned, and in that sense “truer” to the historical period being represented. (All except, that is, for the hair, which has a way of anchoring any film or television drama firmly to the date of production.)

Davies’s version of South Riding, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, first aired in Britain in early 2011 and is now available on DVD; it is likely to screen in Australia later this year. Running to three hour-long episodes, it relies much more on close-ups than its predecessors, contrasted with views of an unpeopled landscape and, at regular intervals, a long straight road heading to an unknown destination. The result is to skew the emphasis towards pessimism about the future, and to downplay Holtby’s own compensating optimism, which dominates the end of her novel. “We are members one of another,” Sarah reflects in the book’s final pages. “That is what it means – to belong to a community.”

In this contemporary rendering, Sarah’s vitality and resilience, so effectively evoked by Anna Maxwell Martin, never really merge with her surroundings. She remains a very contemporary individual, from her first appearance in a bright red dress that contrasts with the greys, browns and blacks worn by almost everyone else. The burden of the future is placed entirely on Sarah, and on her favourite pupil, Lydia Holly (Charlie Clark), rather than on the community they are ostensibly so much a part of. “He’s the past and you’re the future,” Davies has the socialist councillor Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall) say to Sarah, comparing her with the man she is in love with, the conservative, brooding Robert Carne (David Morrissey). Davies picks up on Sarah’s – and Holtby’s – deep ambivalence about Carne and what he represents; Holtby wrote elsewhere of “the courage of those who, seeing the things they have given their lives to, passing, raise no hand to prevent the coming of the new, that may mean for the world salvation, but for themselves, and all they stand for, certain destruction.”

THIS self-conscious recognition of approaching anachronism is present too in the figure of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the patriarch in another recent, and hugely popular, television drama series, this time from ITV, Downton Abbey. Created and largely written by Julian Fellowes, and drawing on the same knowledge of and feel for life above and below stairs that informed his script for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), Downton Abbey, like South Riding, speaks to a modern audience’s sense of being in transition between an older, more stable world and one which is moving too quickly for us to make sense of just where it might be going. “We can’t fight progress, but we must find ways to soften the blow.” Characters both represent and comment on their times – the times being in this, the first series, the two years before the declaration of war in 1914 – and particularly on the way in which the past defines and constrains them. “Women like me don’t have a life,” says Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the older of Grantham’s three daughters, who as a woman can inherit neither her father’s title nor, thanks to an entail applied by her grandfather, the estate. “Really, we’re stuck in a waiting room, until we marry.”

Downton Abbey conveys a sense of powerlessness to which many of the characters respond with a kind of proverbial pragmatism. “We all carry scars… inside or out,” says the housekeeper, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan). “Nothing in life is sure,” says Mrs Patmore, the cook, played by Lesley Nicol. Mrs Patmore, whose eyes are failing, sticks to the recipes she knows by heart rather than venturing anything new. Mrs Hughes, who has adopted her title because people expect a housekeeper to be a “Mrs,” refuses a late offer of marriage that would, quite literally, make an honest woman of her. She is too tied to her profession and to the great house to want to take on a new role as a farmer’s wife and besides, she likes having a job of her own. It’s a decision that is seen, characteristically of the series overall, as conservative and progressive at the same time.

This focus on a kind of courageous stability is echoed in the frequent tableaux of characters sitting at tea or at table, or strolling at a glacial pace in no particular direction, or in the shots of individuals reading quietly by themselves or contemplating in private the exigencies of life. At intervals the pace suddenly picks up – a hunt, a rowdy political meeting, a flurry of excitement at a formal dinner when Mrs Patmore mistakes the salt for the sugar. These activities seem to herald new possibilities for the characters, ways of shaking things up and trying something new, but the rules very quickly reassert themselves. Yet Downton Abbey, like South Riding, maintains its momentum not least because of our own certain knowledge that things are indeed going to be shaken up, and fairly soon. Our certainty is reinforced by the introduction in the final episode of that now classic trope of advancing modernity, the telephone. The man who comes to install it just happens to need a secretary and Gwen the housemaid, who with the encouragement of Lady Sybil has been taking courses in typewriting by correspondence, gets the role, stepping out at the end of the series into the wider world, from which comes the news that war has been declared. Thus is the way prepared for the forthcoming second series, just as the news of the sinking of the Titanic, with the loss of Lord Grantham’s first cousin and heir, has prepared the way for the first.

Downton Abbey is that curious thing, an adaptation without an original, or at least without a single, preceding text against which it can be compared and its faithfulness judged. Instead it has many texts behind it – the novels of Henry James, for instance, or L.P. Hartley or Kazuo Ishiguro, not to mention countless volumes of history and memoir – which gives us the slightly unsettling feeling that we have met the characters before, and know their backstories. Rather than turning the characters into clichés, this has the effect, along with the uniformly superb acting, of giving them many more layers than the script alone provides, and contributing to what many reviewers have called the addictiveness of the series. In Episode 2, it is revealed that the butler, Carson (Jim Carter), was once one half of a travelling music hall act. Lord Grantham’s forgiving reaction nudges us to the conclusion that Carson’s present life is not so very different from his old one. In the commentary to the first episode on the DVD, Julian Fellowes observes, of the kinds of people on whom his characters are based, that “they were all performing a role that was decreed for them,” thereby reworking a line he has already given to Lord Grantham. “We all have different parts to play,” the earl advises his distant cousin and new heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), “and we must all be allowed to play them.” At the heart of a very careful reconstruction of the past is a very modern notion, that performance offers us the key to fulfilment.

The kinds of self-contained communities depicted in South Riding and Downton Abbey fascinate a modern eye with their rigidity and stratification, their rules both spoken and unspoken. We are torn between our admiration for those who want to break out of their assigned roles, and a balancing regard for the ones who just knuckle down and do the best they can with what they’re given. Assailed as we now are by competing definitions of community – local, global, virtual – we are as constrained in a way as the characters on the screen, except that, unlike them, we are not so sure of the rules. As with all historical recreations, particularly of times that are, like these, not so far away from ours, we tend to see our predecessors as versions of ourselves, just as their predicaments are versions of ours. Perhaps that is why we take such perverse pleasure in identifying those on-screen anachronisms, the plastic ID tags that both separate us from and connect us to the imagined past. Even Julian Fellowes succumbs. He tells us on the DVD commentary that if we pause the player at just the right point in Episode 1, when the housemaids are engaged in plumping the cushions, we’ll catch a glimpse of a modern zip fastener, which wasn’t in use until many years later. •

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