War and Peace

War and Peace often gets used as unflattering shorthand for things that are very long and, frankly, a bit of a drag: legal contracts, EU regulations, the collected works of Jeffrey Archer, that sort of thing.

Perhaps conscious of its intimidating reputation, the BBC has sexed up Tolstoy’s literary doorstop by hiring Britain’s sexer-upper-in-chief, Andrew Davies. And he got straight to work in the first episode, plonking Downton’s Lily James in a bathtub, casting Tuppence Middleton in a dream sequence striptease and ramping up the book’s subtle allusion to incest into full-blown Game of Thrones territory. There was even a visit to a drinking den where the debauchery extended to frolicking with naked ‘actresses’ and tying a policeman to a bear. Or was it a bear to a policeman? Either way, it looked highly dangerous.

Davies’ real skill, though, is the way he has taken all those characters with unpronounceable, interchangeable Russian names and deftly sketched in their character, history and motivation without breaking into a sweat. Depicting Napoleon’s invasion of Tsarist Russia through the eyes of five aristocratic families, this six-part adaptation is stuffed with more acting royalty than happy hour at The Groucho, including Gillian Anderson as a wealthy St Petersburg socialite, Stephen Rea as a scheming nobleman and Jim Broadbent as a reclusive prince who, when asked by his son if he’s well, replied, ‘Only fools and degenerates are unwell’. I like him already.

Paul Dano is suitably gauche as the book’s slightly hapless, idealist hero Pierre, but perhaps the real star turn in a handsome, cinematic production is St Petersburg itself, its snowy palaces and squares presenting the most ravishing Sunday night spectacle since Aidan Turner forgot to pack his scything shirt.

In this week’s opening instalment, James Norton’s frustrated Prince Andrei went off to fight Napoleon in order to get away from his wife (most men just go to the pub), while Pierre’s father breathing his last prompted much wrangling over the will – literally, at one point, in scenes which recalled one of Alexis and Krystle’s fabulous hair-pulling catfights in Dynasty.

Tabloid-friendly titillation aside, this is a classy, confident and inclusive take on Tolstoy’s epic that’s so good, I may even be tempted to read the book. But probably not.

TV extra: 

Griff’s Great Britain

In this new twist – if that’s not too strong a word – on the celebrity travelogue, Griff Rhys Jones is tasked with completing random challenges in various picturesque parts of the UK.

First up, he was in the South Downs to catch a sheep (which is hardly likely to help the undeserved reputation of his fellow Welshmen) – a job that proved to be not that difficult, actually, as the ruminant in question was standing completely still at the time.

The result was possibly the least eventful 30 minutes of television ever. Nice scenery, though.


Bruce’s Hall of Fame with Alexander Armstrong

The Beeb’s celebrity take on Stars in their Eyes sees famous faces paying tribute to the artists who inspired their careers. Or, at least, that’s the idea – though it’s difficult to see how, for example, Aretha Franklin could have directly influenced Shona McGarty’s performance as a minicab controller in EastEnders (other than the fact she’s called Whitney, I suppose).

Alexander Armstrong (standing in for indisposed host Bruce Forsyth) also made the bold claim that ‘the most exciting thing to happen in the Nineties was Beverley Knight’. You heard it here first, folks.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 7, 2016

(c) Waitrose Weekend