The Future of Period Adaptations
As ITV steals the march on the BBC with Downton Abbey, proving that they can do Period Drama just as well, will the BBC change their stance on Period Drama production and admit that ‘Bonnet Dramas’ have certainly not had their last hurrah?
Period Drama has been a bit of a dodgy bet in recent times and in 2009 the BBC announced that their production of Jane Austen’s Emma would be the last big budget Period Drama on the BBC for several years. Further putting the nail in the coffin, this programme proved to be a major flop despite reproducing the work of the ever media-popular Austen. The production, starring Romola Garrai and Micheal Gambon, failed to engage the flighty British public and proved to be instantly forgettable. Without any noticeably poor acting, too much deviance from the novel, or particularly bad period detail, the drama lacked a spark.
In September 2009, in response to the BBC’s announcement, Andrew Davies, who wrote the hugely successful BBC adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, Vanity Fair and the more recent, Little Dorrit, publicly said that BBC drama had ‘gone downmarket’ as bosses refused to show anything but the ‘popular warhorses’ of literature. His planned production of Trollope’s The Pallisers had just been dropped in favour of the BBC period production that will spell the end of this drought: the interminable David Copperfield. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture tvandradio/6239992/BBC-period-drama-has-gone-downmarket-says-Andrew-Davies.html). Clearly the man had a point. Even in literary circles David Copperfield is a bit of a dead horse. The opening sequence of Dickens’ classic, which seems to have been on school curriculums since the day of its inception, has been parodied time and again in postmodern literature.
However, it does seem a bit rich for the man who made his name from Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House, to talk about ‘popular warhorses’. The Pallisers may not be particularly well-known, but it has actually been adapted before for TV, even if current generations can’t remember this occurrence or find the energy to dig it up. The amount of fresh adaptations, made straight from the book with no previous backlog of adaptations to bypass is relatively small. As the current work-in-progress production of David Copperfield shows, commissioners desperately want to go with something safe. But is this obsession with money resulting in endless reworks of the same old texts, a lack of originality, and ultimately productions such as the recent Emma, which are rendered worse by comparison with better versions? (This safe move in TV production follows on, of course, from a film industry obsessed with sequels, even as we hear that Pirates of the Carribean 4 is in production.)
Gone are the days when a naïve TV commissioner will blindly accept the words ‘I think we can only do justice to this 300 page novel with a twelve part adaptation’. Brideshead Revisited (interestingly also an ITV production) marked both a high point and a low point in Period Drama production; never again will so much money be invested on so few words. However, the drama was hugely successful and stands as a benchmark in Period Drama history.
It is not as if we are running out of ‘bonnet literature’ however; the Victorian era, and even earlier, the Georgian and Regency eras, marked a major increase in the production and distribution of the printed word. For the first time in history, stories became big business and there were a phenomenal number of novels (from the high end literature, George Eliot-esque, to the low end sentimental Mills & Boon-esque) produced. There is so much choice that it is slightly daunting; but surely one thing that this tells us is that we should be a little bit more keen to widen the audiences experience rather than persist with the fallacy that the Victorian era had four authors: Dickens and the Bronte sisters!
Interestingly however, even within these authors novels there lie preferences. Whilst Jane Eyre has been adapted more than 25 times for TV and film and there is another film version due out next year; Shirley, another of the author’s classics was made into one silent film in 1922. That is it. What is it that makes everyone so desperate to reproduce the same old material? Bronte was no Dickens, whose prolific numbers of novels make it difficult to do everything. Charlotte Bronte, one of Britain’s best loved authors, wrote only four major novels in her lifetime; and only one that the British and American film industries is brave enough to adapt.
Surely what the BBC need to do is invest money into little-known ‘bonnet dramas’; not re-work the same material again and again? The BBC have recently made several productions of early twentieth century texts, Small Island was broadcast earlier this year, to resounding success and a production of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding is currently in production. However when it comes to the Victorians and Regency literature, it seems that they believe in the tried and tested route. But surely, in the wake of Emma, an almost guaranteed earner, but with the success of Downton to aspire to this is a risk that the BBC should consider.