'What are we going to do this season that will convince the punters that the licence fee is good value for money?'
'You mean apart from the hippos?'
'I was thinking maybe one of those costume dramas with ladies in bonnets and wild, uncontrollable men with wild, uncontrollable hair.'
'Good call. They go down well with broadsheets and foreigners.'
'I thought maybe Jane Eyre?'
'OK, I'll nip down to Smiths and pick up a 99p classic. What did she write?'
'Er, guys, I think we have a problem. I was expecting chick lit. Wild eyed hunks on the moor singing it's me, I'm cathee, I've come home.'
'I think that's a different one.'
'But it's all about religion, and growing up, and education, and psychology, and scenery.'
'Well, cut it.'
'All of it?'
'Well, the religion and the psychology. It worked for Peter Jackson. But leave in the scenery We need an excuse for a location shoot or the punters won't believe it was expensive. But drop the education and cut straight to the bonking.'
'There isn't any bonking.'
'I thought you said it was a costume drama?'
'I thought you said it was a prestige literary adaptation.'
'Well invent some. You are a writer after all.'
'Sex? In Jane Eyre? Is it okay if they keep their clothes on?'
'Only if it's artistically necessary. Are there any bonnets?'
'Oh yes. Lot's and lots of bonnets.'
'Bonnets are good. I suppose there is no way you can work in a hippo?'
First person narratives aren't easy things to turn into dramas. Jane Eyre is all about Jane's mind and how it develops; it's full of thoughts, subjective impressions, and enormously long sentences. ('And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the the first time it recoiled baffled; and for the the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood -- the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, plunging amid that chaos.') It is a mark of how much Ruth Wilson will deserve her BAFTA that she manages to suggest the existence of these kinds of inner depths in a script which, of necessity, limits her to spending most of the first two episodes not saying much more than 'Yes Sir,' and 'No Sir'. Toby Stevens is neither sexy enough nor enough of a bastard to really succeed in being the sexiest bastard in literature, but he had a damn good try. The film starts to sparkle whenever the two of them have an extended scene together. And although it is never tricksy, there are some nice visual touches: I particularly liked the way in which we see Jane and Rochester's faces in profile, her's superimposed over his, the first time he announces that 'you and I are one.' The central episodes, where Jane is the governess at Thornfield made gripping TV, although they did stress the 'Gothic' aspect of the story rather too much for my taste. Jane's wedding is carried of brilliantly; what sticks in the mind is not the high melodrama of the lawyer at the back of the church saying 'There is an impediment!' but Rochester looking at Jane in awe and saying 'How could I have imagined you would have looked better in that gaudy veil!' The use of flashbacks to bring those of us who haven't been watching The Wide Sargasso Sea up to speed with the mad-woman in the attic are also a good idea in theory, although they tend to underline the fact that Rochester can't really be imagined in any context apart from his rambling Gothic mansion. So, all in all, a jolly good piece of Sunday night TV of the kind they don't make any more. What it wasn't, of course, was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre concludes with Jane receiving a letter from her former suitor Rev. St. John Rivers, who has gone to be a missionary in India (as opposed to Africa, incidentally.) He's very ill; but he knew when he went that the climate would probably kill him. ' "My master,"he says "Has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, 'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.' " ' The last line of Jane Eyre is the same as the last line of the Bible. St. John is quoting St. John. This is important at all sorts of levels. Rochester is the most important person in Jane's life, but he's not the be-all and end-all of her world: when she concludes her 'autobiography', she has higher things than romance on her mind. The story has partly been about Jane's spiritual growth: it starts with her at the mercy of some thoroughly nasty Christians; but it ends with her thinking about a thoroughly good one.
The BBC's version ends with Jane and Rochester entertaining some kind of family gathering, possibly the christening of their second child. They form up into a family group, and the final image of the film is a photograph in a floral frame. (Quite who was taking snapshots in 1847 is open to question: perhaps they held the pose for a week or so while someone did an oil painting.) Granted, this is an attempt to deal with the four most un-adaptable words in English Literature; but it's clear that we are being told that they all lived happily ever after. The book leaves us wondering, as Jane is presumably wondering, whether she did the write thing to follow her heart back to Thornfield rather than follow her head and become a clergyman's wife. In the TV series, the question is not even on the table: all stories end with weddings and if it comes to a choice between God and Toby Stevens, there's no contest. The idea that 'spiritual and religious development' could be one strand of a novel that is also about lurve is clearly not something which TV audiences could deal with. So out goes. So out goes most of the Lowood section (about a quarter of the book) and out goes much of the relationship with St. John.
We know that Jane is never going to go to Africa with Rivers, because she spends all the time that she is with him having flashbacks about Rochester, rendering the sci-fi climax, in which she is summonsed back to Thornfield by telepathy, rather gratuitous. At one level, these flashbacks are a rather elegant bit of TV narration. We jump straight from the revelation of the madwoman in the attic to Jane's being found wandering on the moor by Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks gradually fill in the details of what happened in between, but also serve to keep Toby Stevens present on the screen when he is absent from the plot, and thus, to prevent the distaff contingent switching to channel 5.
On what would have been their wedding night, Rochester goes to Jane's bedchamber and begs her to run away with him to Italy. Jane is lying on her back; Rochester is lying on Jane, in what Rev. Rivers would presumably not have called the missionary position. It is in this position that he suggests that they could live as brother and sister, so she would not have to live in sin. I think Jane would probably have regarded miming intercourse with a man she didn't think she could legally marry as quite sinful enough, thank you very much. In case we have missed the point, when she goes back to Rochester after the fire, they end up lying on top of each other on the grass, decently clad but with their legs most indecorously intertwined.
Adapting a 19th century book and expecting the characters to adopt 21st century attitudes is precisely like going on holiday to Spain and insisting on drinking fish and chips and Courage best. There may have been a time when the BBC adapted Great Books in the hope that the Unwashed Masses who hadn't read them would be encouraged to discover the wonderful world of reading; or else they did radical reworkings of the classic to challenge and titillate the people who had. Now, it's just a matter of scouring old books for period love stories. Historical tourism.
Meanwhile, if you are the sort of person who finds themselves compelled to look at road accidents, then the BBCs other high-profile costume drama has not yet been removed from its prime time Saturday evening spot.
I think I probably first met Robin Hood in a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood . Then the BBC did The Legend of Robin Hood as one of their Sunday tea-time classic serials, my lady this and my lady that, earnest, historical and probably filmed in a quarry. I've also seen Basil Rathbone trying to conceal the fact that he is an accomplished fencer and Errol Flynn isn't; and Michael Praed pretending that if he goes on and on about Herne the Hunter, no one will notice his girly haircut. But these are all travesties. We all know the canonical version of the story, the one against which all others are judged. It's the one where Robin is a fox, Little John is a bear and Friar Tuck is a badger. In terms of seriousness, conviction and authenticity, it knocks the BBCs present offering into a cocked hat. With a feather on it.
Robin himself is probably the most interesting thing in the new series. In a Saturday teatime sort of way, he's trying to be a rounded character. We're in the version of the story where Robin is not a mere yeoman, but the Earl of Huntingdon. (He's also referred to as Robin of Locksly, which suggests that the writers have been studying some of the more obscure Greenwood ballads. Or watching DVDs of Robin of Sherwood.) He's only recently returned to England; and something very bad happened to him in the Time War, sorry, did I say Time War, I meant Crusades, although so far we haven't found out exactly what. His peasants love him, and he loves them: the reason he steals from the bad and gives to the good is that he still feels some responsibility to his peasants even now he's lost his lands. He very specifically robs the rich to feed the poor: he hasn't been back in England five minutes before he's inviting them to a slap-up feast in Huntingdon manor. He likes to leave gifts for the peasants in surprising ways and then watch the look on their faces when they find them, making me wonder if the writers had possibly confused him with Father Christmas. He likes the thanks and the adulation of the peasants, either because he is a glory hound, or because he has a neurotic need to be loved. (Clue: Answer B will turn out to be correct, probably because he lost someone dear to him in the Holy Land.)
Oh, and he's a pacifist, presumably due to his bad experience in Iraq, sorry, did I say Iraq, I meant Jerusalem. I think that he must have been designed in one of those role-playing games where you get extra skill points if you accept a big disadvantage. Robin has put all his skill points into Archery (he uses a Saracen bendy bow, not an English longbow, which arguably misses the point). He can do anything he likes with his arrows. He's forever shooting the ropes off innocent men on the gallows and shooting down arrows in flight which are about to kill innocent people, and firing six arrows at once which all miraculously go exactly where he meant them to. Most of this happens in slow motion, which presumably makes it a bit easier for him. But like the Green Arrow in the 1970s he has a Code Against Killing. So in episode 1, when the Sheriff is about to cut off Alan Adale's hand, Robin fires off five arrows with pin point accuracy, one between each of Alan's fingers; but then has to run away from the Sheriff's men because he isn't allowed to fire at anyone.
Robin has a sidekick who calls him Master and is devoted to him. His name is Much, but we don't find out if he is a Miller, or indeed if he has a son. I think he may turn out to be a gardener. Once Robin has run away into Sherwood, he finds a ready made troupe of moderately cheerful men. They are led by John, who is very big, but isn't called Little John. (John Little has a little son called Little John: it is obviously much funnier for a little person to be called 'little' than a big person.) Alan Adale shows no sign of being a singer. There are a whole brood of Scarlets, one of them called Will, but he doesn't appear to be a tough guy, or indeed, anything else. Friar Tuck is missing altogether. If we can believe the Daily Express this is because the political correctness brigade thought the character was disrespectful to fat people. But we can't. (In the canonical version, Tuck the badger was not especially over-weight. He lived in a church with some church mice, which suggests a limited understanding of the concept of mendicant orders. But then, since the Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the Dominicans in 1215, there were presumably not a whole lot of Friars in England at the time of Prince John's regency (1190-1194). I digress.)
So far, so harmless. It is certainly uncontaminated by originality, but it slips down easily enough on a Saturday evening. But where the canonical version treated Robin as a a serious heroic character, producer Dominic Minghella can't get it out of his head that what we are watching is a pantomime. This is understandable: if you are an Actor the Sheriff of Nottingham is not so much a nasty character in a medieval romance, but a camp role where the main objective is to get the kiddies to say 'Boo' and 'He's behind you.' Keith Allen can't decide whether he is meant to be playing a slimy politician -- he's rather good when trying to convince the peasants that Robin isn't out for their best interests -- or a pointlessly nasty nastyperson, joking about torture and killing ickle budgies to work off his anger. There is no rapport between this Robin and this Sheriff, because Robin is a dead-pan romantic hero while the Sheriff is camp comedy relief. Guy of Gisborn turns up dressed in biker leathers, and plays the role as a cop-show thug. Three main characters from three different series.
Along comes Marian, who may or may not be a maid. In the canonical version, as in Errol Flynn's, she is a noble lady who lives in the castle and is wooed by the courtly Robin. In Ror-or-or-bin, the Hooded-Man she is pretty much just a female merry man. Here, she is introduced as the ex-Sheriff's daughter, Rob's old flame, who isn't quite sure if she wants to pick up the relationship again. In episode 2 she does the obligatory 'I can help you out of the prison cell' routine, suggesting she just wants to be medieval-drama-lady. Would that she had remained so.
And then we have our obligatory sacrifice to the great god Relevance. I understand, largely because I read it in the Guardian, that Robin-Hood-Robin-Hood-Riding-Through-the-Glen was written by victims of the 1950s anti-communist black-list and contained some subtle digs at McCarthyism. The new series is trying something similar apart from the 'subtle' part. In episode 1, we find out that some people think that Richard has got England involved in an unnecessary war, of dubious legality and morality, against Muslims, because he has much too close a relationship with the Pope. In episode 2, we discover that the Sheriff has introduced a system of indefinite detention without trial for outlaws, who are regarded as 'enemy combatants' for the duration of the war. And in episode 3, we find the slimy sheriff making a slimy speech trying to persuade the peasants that Robin is a bad thing. This goes on in the background while Robin is snogging Marian, so all we hear is 'terrorizing....terror...war on terror!' I want to die. More specifically, I want Dominic Minghella to die.
In Episode 3, we find out that while Robin was off killing Muslims there was another outlaw in Sherwood, who also stood up for the peasants, and who wears a mask. He's called 'The Nightwatchman'. As soon as this was mentioned, I started to repeat 'please don't let it turn out to be Marian; please don't let it turn out to be Marian' over and over again. I needn't have bothered: at the end of the episode, it turned out to be Marian. Are we really so unimaginative that the only alternative we can think of to the admittedly sexist 'courtly love' of the Elizabethan and Hollywood versions is to take the Rich But Fragile Maiden Who The Tough But Strangely Attractive Outlaw Worships From Afar and give her a sword, a bow, and for all I know, a willy?
The aforementioned 'night watchman' is wrongly suspected of having killed the Sheriff's bailiff. The Sheriff, because he is evil, tries to blame Robin for the murder, and, because he is very evil, arranges for a few more of his men to be killed so he can blame Robin for that as well. It turns out that the assassin was someone entirely different; and at the end of the episode, he succeeds in assassinating the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Except that, because the Sheriff is clever as well as evil, he had himself impersonated by a double while the assassin was on the loose.
'I shot the sheriff!' says Someone Entirely Different. 'No', replies Dick Dastardly 'You shot the deputy.' This would have been excruciatingly unfunny at any time; but it was made worse by the fact that they'd already made exactly the same joke in the title of the episode. I can only assume that it was written by a different Paul Cornell.
It makes me wonder. The opening sequence has a portentous march tune and over-done film style credits. Every new scene is introduced with a caption (accompanied by a silly 'twang' sound) which tells you where the scene is happening, even when you already know or it doesn't matter. The final scene is introduced by a graphic of a spinning archery target. This simply isn't how TV is made nowadays. The episodes end, not with a trailer for next week, but an advert for the BBC's on-line Robin Hood archery game, in which, get this, all the characters are represented as cardboard cut-outs. So...is it possible that Robin Hood is not a drama that fails to take itself seriously; but a deliberate spoof which we have mistaken for straight drama because it is so achingly unfunny?
Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.