The makers of period dramas are always desperate to impress upon us how ‘relevant’ they are to a modern audience. Not Gwyneth Hughes: the writer of ITV’s utterly glorious new adaptation of Vanity Fair claimed recently that she hates ‘the R word’ – before admitting there was simply no avoiding the thunderously contemporary echoes in William Makepeace Thackeray’s mountainous satire.
Michael Palin, presiding over the revels as Thackeray himself, set the tone right off the bat by bidding us welcome to a place of ‘humbug, falseness and pretension – a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having’. If that’s not the perfect description of 2018, I don’t know what is.
And then there is the book’s sassy orphan heroine, Becky Sharp, engaged in a battle of wits on two fronts in an effort to rise above the constraints of both sex and class. ‘You think, because you are clever, society will overlook your low birth?’ sneered Suranne Jones’ snob of a schoolmistress. Not a lot has changed in 200 years, has it?
Fortunately, Becky was born with a hustler’s spirit and elbows as pointed as her name, and is determined to pull herself up by her bootstraps using any means necessary. In fact she’s borderline sociopathic, but as played by Olivia Cooke – a career-making performance that puts even seasoned veterans like Palin, Jones and Martin Clunes in the shade – she is utterly captivating.
James Strong’s stylish direction also rolls a grenade into the usual bonnet drama conventions: it was obvious from the moment he opened the show with a grungy cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower that we weren’t exactly in Cranford territory.
It’s properly, laugh-out-loud funny too, with Cooke giving the camera plenty of Miranda-style saucy side eye, and Clunes on reliably bumptious form as the ruddy-faced Sir Pitt Crawley.
So yes, Vanity Fair is relevant with a capital R. But even if it wasn't, this would still be the most thrilling and vivacious literary adaptation in an age. Miss Becky Sharp demands your attention, and only a fool would dare resist.
There was no Watch It Now column last week, which is just as well, as I still hadn’t quite recovered from the nerve-shredding opening 20 minutes of Bodyguard. Not that Jed Mercurio’s knife-edge thriller has exactly dialled down the tension since. With terrific lead performances from Keeley Hawes as steely Home Secretary Julia Montague and Richard Madden as her troubled personal protection officer, it’s almost (almost) worth foregoing a Line of Duty series this year.
Following my vehement assertion a couple of weeks ago that Impossible Celebrities does not, in fact, make any sense, presenter Rick Edwards was kind enough to get in touch and offer the following explanation: ‘The questions have two conditions: if both are satisfied, the answer is right. If one is satisfied, the answer is merely wrong. If neither are satisfied, the answer is impossible.’ He even offered to draw me a Venn diagram so, on that basis alone, I concede the point.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, September 6, 2018
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