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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Agatha Christie created two memorable detective figures, of whom Miss Marple is my favourite. Many actresses have played the role over the years but for 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.
- 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.
- 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 endeavors 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.
- 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.
- 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.