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Top 10 book-to-tv series

This is the time of year where, in the Northern Hemisphere, the TV companies decide to emerge from their summer hibernation and role out their new series. This year the BBC has gone for nostalgia with a remake of some of the most successful comedy programmes of past decades. So we’ve had reprisals of, for example, Hancock’s Half Hour and Till Death Us Do Part. The new versions are dire – no reflection on the actors bit more a comment on the direction which has robbed those programmes of the very freshness that made them so successful. These new versions are simply trying too hard to be funny.

They a reminder that some things are best left alone. They were great as they were and don’t improve with tampering. In honour of the past here are some of my favourite book related programmes of past decades

  1. I Claudius. This BBC series broadcast in 1976 starred Derek Jacobi as the club-footed stammering historian who unwillingly became Emperor. It’s an adaptation of the novels  I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves which trace the history of Rome from the time of the Emperor Augustus and his scheming wife Livia (played with great aplomb  by Sian Phillips). That might sound like a dry and dusty history programme but its really a saga of a family who would make the Mafia come across as a basket of poodles. Incest, plots, murder amd war abound. Yes the sets seem a little cardboard at times but such is the power of the story and the strength of the actors ( which include John Hurst as a wonderfully over the top Caligula that you tend to ignore them.
  2. Jewel in the Crown. A 1984 series about the final days of the British Raj in India during World War II, based upon the Raj Quartet novels (1965–75) by Paul Scott. Those novels are among my favourites and the TV series does them full justice via some stellar performances by Geraldine James as Sarah Layton, the daughter of a British colonel  who comes to question Britain’s role in India,  and Tim Pigott-Smith as the police superintendent turned Major, Ronald Merrick who desperately wants to be accepted by the higher echelons of society.
  3. Pride and Prejudice. You knew there had to be an Austen on the list right? The 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is the one I rate the most. But it’s not because of that scene where Darcy emerges in clinging garments from his impromptu swim in a lake to confront Lizzie. The scenes that stick more in my mind are the ones where the sycophantic vicar Mr Collins tries to claim acquaintance with the high and mighty Mr Darcy only to be snubbed and another later scene where Miss Elizabeth Bennett tells the status-conscious, interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh to stick her nose in someone else’s business. All other versions of Austen’s novel pale into insignificance against this one.
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit: the 1994 BBC adaptation mercifully eliminates the rather boring sequence from Dickens’ novel where the eponymous hero takes off for the USA to make his fortune only to land in a swampy disease-filled settlement where he succumbs to malaria and almost dies. It’s a fast paced novel which clearly shows how greed and selfishness affect the actions of the main characters. It has some memorable cameo performances from Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff and Pete Postlethwaite as the magnificently named Tigg Montague
  5. A set of novels about a twelfth century Benedictine monk  who has the forensic powers to root out crime and wrongdoing, might sound like an odd premise for a best seller. But in Brother Cadfael, the linguist Edith Pargeter (using the pseudonym of  Ellis Peters) created a memorable figure and a set of novels well respected for their historical authenticity. The TV adaptations starring Derek Jacobi, broadcast between 1994 and 1998 generated a new swathe of fans who began making a pilgrimage to the town of Shrewsbury, on the border of England and Wales, where Brother Cadfael was based. They were not to know that the programs were actually filmed in Hungary… and starring Derek Jacobi as the monk in Shrewsbury. Otherwise most of the 13 episodes were reasonably faithful to the books – the relationship between Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury Hugh Berringer is more cordial on the screen than in Peters’ novels however.
  6. Agatha Christie created two memorable detective figures, of whom Miss Marple is my favourite. Many actresses have played the role over the years but forjoan_hickson me there is one whose portrayal stands head and shoulders above all others and that is  Joan  Hickson. She played the title role in the tv series  Miss Marple that aired in the UK from the end of 1984 to the end of 1992. The 12 episodes were all beautifully filmed mainly in Norfolk, Devon and Oxfordshire though in one Miss M gets to go to Barbados. It’s Joan Hickson’s performance that makes these ‘must view’ programs – behind  those faded blue eyes and the chatter about village life lies a sharp mind that gets to the essence of the case faster than any policeman.
  7. Middlemarch. It would take a brave script writer to try to take this hugely complex novel and render it meaningful for a tv audience. But Andrew Davies, who has since made his name as the go to scriptwriter for adaptations of the classics, pulled off a critical success in 1994. He had to make choices of course, the chief of which was to give special weight to George Eliot’s theme of thwarted ambition and unfulfilled dreams. He was greatly aided by the performances of Juliet Aubrey who delivers the right mix of earnestness and naievity as Dorothea and Patrick Malahide as the disappointed academic cleric Casaubon who is afraid his wife will discover how his life’s work has been all for nothing. Simply brilliant.
  8. If you’ve ever read the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre you’ll know how complex this is. The novel follows the endeaguinessvors of a taciturn, ageing spymaster called George Smiley to uncover a Soviet mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. It’s a complex novel that deals the intricacies of who within the intelligence service knew what. The 1979 TV adaptation was still tough going – I’ve seen this series at least three times and though I can remember who the mole is, I still have no clue how we got to that conclusion.We did however get to see Alec Guinness turn in a beautifully understated performance as Smiley, the guy brought back to save the British government from embarrassment.
  9. To Serve Them all My Days: This was a rather lovely novel by R F Delderfeld in which he takes a coal miner’s son from South Wales who returns from the trenches of World War 1 injured and shell-shocked. He gets a job as a history teacher at a public school in Devon and, after several false starts and mishaps, becomes a much loved master , he is employed to teach history at Bamfylde School, a fictional public school in North Devon, in the south-west of England. The tv adaptation, script written by Andrew Davies, was broadcast between 1980 and 1981, and is as cosily watchable as the novel is cosily readable.
  10. Inspector Morse The novels by Colin Dexter which feature Chief Inspector Morse were not brilliant I have to say – sometimes rather thin on description and character development – but the television series is one of my go-to favourites on a cold, winter’s night. Just the sight of those cuppolas and ivy-clad facades of warm Cotswold stone and I’m hooked.  John Thaw  memorably showed the character’s irascibility and frustration with bureaucracy, his aversion to blood and his love of music (especially Wager).There were 33 episodes in all — 20 more than there are novels  in fact – which aired between 1987 and 2000. Dexter made uncredited cameo appearances in all but three of the episodes.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “Top 10 book-to-tv series

  • Great list! Thanks for sharing!

  • Love this! As a fan of book-to-film and book-to-TV adaptations, I find it so devastating when they get it all wrong. Especially when they’ve already gotten it right.

    • i try not to spend too much time looking at the differences – it can be fun sometimes but often I find it spoils my enjoyment

      • buriedinprint

        I’m with you on that one; I try to space out the reading/viewing so that I am more inclined to allow each to stand on their own merits. That Middlemarch is a favourite for sure; I’d love to review it more often!

  • Sarah

    You have some real crackers here. I’ve not seen the ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ so I’ll look out for that, but many of the others are firm favourites of mine too. Both Morse and P&P are regular ‘under the weather’ viewing in our house, and I’d probably put my ensuing fascination with classical civilisation down to watching I Claudius as a young child. I heard parts of it again fairly recently on Radio 4xtra, and it was every bit as good!

    • I Claudius on radio? I do wish radio program listings were as easy to get and follow as the tv ones because I miss so many good things.

  • Of course, I’d put the 1995 P&P series first – I’ve always felt that Jennifer Ehle didn’t get the fame she deserved because of that darned wet shirt scene. Of course Colin Firth was great, but so was Ehle. I know Austen male fans love her, but unfortunately the female fans, and therefore the Firth fans outnumber the men.

    I’m sorry but I’m not a huge fan of Agatha Christie so while I’ve watched some of the Marple and Poirot shows they are not my favourite. Of Dickens, I did enjoy Our mutual friend.

    And I did enjoy that Middlemarch you list.

    One I’d add here would be the Barchester Chronicles. Old now, like some you’ve mentioned, but I thought they were excellent. (And I remember, even before that, my grandmother and family loving The Pallisers, which as I recollect was Trollope too?)

    I have enjoyed some of the recent gritty British detective novels, and here in Australia, while the acting was perhaps not always the best, the historical details in the Phryne Fisher series (based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels) kept me coming back.

    • How could I have forgotten the Barchester Chronicles. They were brilliant – I particularly liked Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the oleaginous Mr Sloper but the Bishop’s wife (can’t remember the actress’ name now) was superb too.

      Ive not heard of the Phryne Fisher series – it hasn’t made its way over here yet.

      • It’s hard to remember them all, Karen … That’s why these posts can be such fun to write and to comment on, I think!

  • I love that P&P series so much – it’s my comfort viewing and could watch any part of it at any time 🙂
    Equally so, the series of Anne of Green Gables that was made in the late 80s is still the best (the one with Jonathan Cromby as Gilbert).

    • Ive not seen Anne of Green Gables partly because I never got into the books – in fact I don’t think I have read it …

  • Some real goodies there. I dearly loved I, Claudius and that is really saying a lot from me since I don’t care for that period/location. Agree about Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. She seemed exactly perfect.

    Also a fan of Morse, more so of the program than the books. I tried watching the continuation with Lewis. They were good enough, but ultimately not enough to keep me watching. The same with the revamped Upstairs, Downstairs. After the first one with Jean Marsh, I slowly lost interest.

    • the problem with the Lewis series is that Kevin Whately simply isn’t a lead actor. he’s fine in supporting roles but can’t carry the lead in the same way that Thaw could or even the guy who plays Hathaway can. With a lead actor your eye is drawn to them all the time – Whately unfortunately has a rather wooden style

    • It’s a definite feel good program. Unfortunately my husband groans every time i want to watch it

  • Loved the BBC P&P but my favourite on your list is Hickson as Marple. I first watched it as a child, was terrified but ADORED her ❤❤ Part of where my love of whodunits has come from.

    • A good example of the power of the small and big screen to influence our behaviour – in this case all for the better 🙂

  • I, Claudius is fabulous – Sian Philips really is something else, and John Hurt is hauntingly creepy as Caligula. I watched it with a bunch of uni friends (most of whom were classicists) and it was good to have someone to clutch at during the worst of Caligula’s reign…

  • Jonathan

    It’s good to remind ourselves that good adaptions can be done! I liked the 1980s Little Dorrit starring Alec Guinness (I haven’t read the book). I’m watching the 1970s Old Curiosity Shop currently which is ok (I haven’t read the book)—Trevor Peacock as Quilp is brilliantly over the top.

    I recently read and watched Clochemerle—I loved both book and TV series.

    • I enjoyed Little Dorrit as a novel but haven’t seen the adaptation. Another one for the birthday/Xmas wish list

  • Thoroughly agree about Joan Hickson – she was the perfect Miss Marple! My favourite Dickens adaptation was the 1980s “Bleak House” with Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock – perfect!

    • I should find that Dickens adaptation – it might help me get into the book more than I’ve managed to date


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