After the success of last year’s slice of Hollywood Victoriana, The Age oflnnocence, the BBC has filmed another lavish Edith Wharton adaptation. Grace Hodge checks out the quality of the crinoline.
No wonder aspiring British screenwriters are frustrated — you go to the trouble of pitching an original screenplay and all along the commissioning editor has been fondling a Penguin Classic under the desk. Ah. but who can resist wallowing in costume drama. with Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers the next classic novel to be given the Sunday tea-time treatment.
This dramatisation ofWharton‘s ﬁnal. unfinished novel follows the story of four American beauties. spurned by New York society because of their ‘new‘ money. who decide to travel to England. accompanied by their wise English governess (Cherie Lunghi). Their debut season is a wild success and the Lord Snootys are entranced. It all goes according to plan until it becomes apparent just what the New World girls have relinquished in order to join the toffs. Supported by a fine cast of British stalwarts. including Jenny Agutter and Michael Kitchen. the American enchantresses are played by four newcomers (Carla Gugino. Alison Elliot. Miro Sorvino and Rya Kihlstedt). whose larky insoueiance contrasts sharply with the British stiffness.
‘We needed genuinely fresh talent.‘ explains executive producer Phillippa Giles. ‘To stand out. they needed to be naives in this world.‘ For ‘this
The Buccaneers: four go wild in Victorian England
world’ read the restrictive society of The Buccaneers and also the world of BBC costume drama. It has the lot: stately homes. big dresses. below-stairs types shimmering in and out of shot. heaving cleavages. draconic mothers and. of course. raging snobbery at every turn. There is also syphilis. marital rape and a husband discovered in bed with another man — certainly more sauce than the average classic serialisation.
‘They really knew nothing about sex and it’s obviously an enormous part of the story for them.’
‘lt is. after all. the story of young women and that‘s
one ofthe things that they had to face.‘ explains
screenwriter Maggie Wadey. ‘They really knew nothing about sex and it‘s obviously an enormous part ofthe story for them. so I wanted to follow it.‘ She cites the ‘cracking good stories and psychological details' as the prime audience appeal in this kind of drama. although Wadey admits that these elements are not as apparent in The Buccaneers as they were in Middlemarch. ‘This one is fun. it‘s got energy. drive and a faster process of story- telling.‘ she says.
Wharton died before plotting an ending. which allowed. as Giles admits. liberties to be taken with the adaptation. with the addition of new storylines and the overt homosexuality. ‘We wanted the story to be the most important thing — people should feel compelled to watch it.‘ he says. ‘Nuance and detail were not first and foremost.‘
Still. what The Buccaneers lacks in characterisation. it makes up for in looks. Shot on location in the lavish Victorian homes of Newport and the grand old houses of England. luxury is obvious from the first scene. And should there be any doubt whatsoever about the privileged society it‘s trying to evoke. this production includes plenty of cutaway shots to old masters and tables loaded with epicurean feasts. Get the picture?
So. while the look is classy. the narrative is unashamedly soapy. despite the omnipresent prejudice and social tnores that so try the Americans. Much of the humour relies on viewer response to the ludicrous social codes that govern the characters. although director Philip Saville believes this could also be a source of comfort for the audience.
‘Everything has a protocol. everything works — the basis of all that Victorian costume is that everything had to be just so.‘ he says. ‘Today everything is fragmented. People like to see the properness of things because our world is so on the edge all the time.‘
Whether or not you think Victorian morality was a good thing. you won‘t be disappointed by a good yarn well-executed. Don‘t expect the subtlety of Martin Chuzzlewit or Middlemarch. just sit back and think of Empire.
The Buccaneers starts on Sunday 5 February on BBC 1 .
Riding on The Tube
‘It was freefall television,’ says presenter Paula Yates. ‘It was rough around the edges,’ says guest Paul Young. ‘It was good because it was from Newcastle,’ says Geordie Trevor Norn. ‘lt set its own agenda,’ says executive producer Malcolm Gertie. It was The Tube and it was a legend. Stlll is, in fact. No music programme has ever topped it. Perhaps none will, though Channel 4 is having another bash in March with the more cerebral White Room. Once the blueprint for anarchic live music programmes had been established in Studio 5 of Tyne
Paula and Jools: ‘shoddy and not very good’
Tees Television in November 1982, attempts to re-draw it ended up smudged and illegible (hello The Roxy! goodbye Club X!). Never have simplicity and novelty so deftly dovetailed.
Everything about The Tube was right. It was on at tea-time on Friday: the perfect slot (only BBCZ’s oriental swashbuckler Monkey was competition in that post-school, pre- weekend buzz-slot). There was no fancy fairyland studio trickery or Word-style professional audiences - The Tube was a scuzzy youth club
i filled with fat folk, gawky geeks and
self-conscious fashion victims. Just like real life, see.
Then there were the presenters - Paula, Jools, Muriel and that little brat Felix - and their loose-cannon nonchalance. ‘l’m not allowed to introduce the next hand because you
might think the singer’s given me one,’ said Paula of The Boomtown Rats. ‘Groovy fuckers,’ said Jools and got banned for six weeks.
And therewas the music. The first episode of The Best Of The Tube features the first appearance of Terence Trent D’Arby and the last one by The Jam. There’s George Clinton’s packet and Divine’s rump. Everyone who was anyone - from REM to The Lords Of The New Church, "2 to Wham - made the trek to Newcastle. They booked them, and they came. Why? Because, as Jools said ‘it was shoddy and just not very good’. That’s exactly why The Tube was brilliant. (Craig McLean)
The Best of The Tube starts on Wednesday 8 Feb at 11pm on Channel 4, starting with a documentary about making the series.
76 The List 27 Jan-9 Feb I995