Escape into breeches-busters and fantasy
Adaptations of novels have provided distraction from the pandemic and there are plenty to come
Plague stalks the Earth, economies teeter — but never mind all that. Huge swathes of the public have better things to think about: the naked gluteus muscles of Regé-Jean Page, beefcake star of Netflix’s ludicrous, unstoppable Bridgerton. The miniseries is a mash-up of several books by Julia Quinn (who also scripted), but in essence it’s cod-Jane Austen with added rumpy-pumpy. Petticoats and petty intrigue, lace and lasciviousness, with dialogue so gasp-makingly terrible as to be entirely hilarious — what more could we want as a distraction from current realities?
Is it the book we wish Austen had written? There have been several of these: it comes hard on the heels of last year’s Belgravia (same costumes) and Sanditon, only slightly less ridiculous than Bridgerton, and this time indeed partly written by poor, abused Austen herself (who gave up, like me, well before the end). And further proof that the breeches-buster genre, heir to the now outmoded bodice-ripper, is as potent as ever. Look out for others before the year is over.
It’s a truism that in times of stress we turn to escapism and fantasy. Preferably set far from our own era and with really great clothes. There’s nothing new about seeing a raft of television hits adapted from novels: a long list could be headed by Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Normal People. Again this year the television schedules bear out our enduring wish to be distracted from the present: fiction rules and adapted novels are the programmers’ best friends.
It was in 1945, into a world exhausted by war, that Nancy Mitford published The Pursuit of Love, a comedy of upper-class English life in the pre-war years. It’s one of the great titles — provided by her close friend, Evelyn Waugh (who also coined her next, even better, Love in a Cold Climate). Now The Pursuit of Love, adapted for the BBC by Emily Mortimer, is coming up to soothe us in our own troubled times: there will be eccentric toffs, big houses, girlish longings for romantic heroes, tears before bedtime. The BBC press materials laughably describe the heroine, Linda (Lily James), as “feminist”, when all she wants is to be swept away by the Earl of Right (no mere Mr for these young women), but don’t let that spoil the fun. The clothes will be spectacular and if it’s not exactly a breeches-buster, extra rumpy-pumpy is sure to be provided somehow.
At the other end of the social scale (if we can’t have the Ritz and labradors, we go for gritty), the BBC has adapted The North Water from Ian McGuire’s novel about the last days of Hull’s whaling industry in the late 1850s. With the starry but male-heavy cast of Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay, this should be a powerful, probably shocking miniseries. Yet still comforting, in its way — things may be bad now, but by gum they were worse back then.
Delving far deeper into the past and into the realms of fantasy, Amazon’s long-gestating The Lord of the Rings is supposed to debut later in 2021. Apparently the action takes place “thousands of years before the events of the novel”, so it’s hardly a straight adaptation, but it’s set in Middle-earth and draws on the same tropes beloved by nerdy teens of all ages.
We may be unwilling to face our present, but we’re happy to skewer our politicians. Anatomy of a Scandal, from the best-seller by Sarah Vaughan, is about nefarious dealings in Westminster, described as “a savage indictment of class, privilege and toxic masculinity in Britain”. With Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and Michelle Dockery, as well as suspense and sexual shenanigans, Netflix might have another winner.
Though grimmer and set way down the social scale, British politics also takes the foreground in the BBC’s Ridley Road, adapted from Jo Bloom’s novel played out in a 1960s London that is just across the city — but a world away — from the capital’s “Swinging Sixties” image: this deals with the resurgence of fascism in the East End and one woman determined to fight it.
Politics in the US, as well as class and money in the great families of 1880s New York, provide de luxe ingredients for The Gilded Age by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. This isn’t based on the novel of that name by Mark Twain, though that also dealt with greed and power, but Twain’s title was quickly adopted as the moniker for those boom years. Old and new money, upstairs/downstairs dramas — will this be Downton-in-Manhattan?
Not much can top writer Sally Rooney in the ratings, it seems, even if one unkind critic opined that she bears out the maxim that only second-rate fiction makes first-rate telly. Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, is apparently in the BBC works, slated for late 2021, but with all details still under wraps: we have to wait and see.
Escapism in real life can be dangerous: best to save it — as we now must — for the small screen.
— © The Financial Times 2021