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on 18 March 2012
It's years since I read Vanity Fair; vague memories suggest that it would be impossible to do the book full justice on screen, and I dare say Thackeray aficionados will probably find this adaption bears that out. However, putting faithfulness to the book to one side, how does this stand in its own right as a costume drama? Well, there's a lot that is wrong. The BBC's successful adaption of "Pride & Prejudice" was still fresh in everyone's minds when this version of Vanity Fair was made, and I suppose it's laudable that they didn't try and cash in with another period piece done in much the same fashion. However, in attempting to give this drama a fresh and individual identity, you actually end up with something so self-conciously trying to be different that it sometimes overwhelms the story. There's a fair bit of "look how clever we are" camera work (which only succeeds in irritating and distracting the viewer), but even worse is some of the most atrocious accompanying music I've ever heard in a classic serial. Discordant and raucous, if it had just been restricted to the opening credits it may have worked in setting the mood of the ensuing drama. However, it constantly intrudes into the programme, so loudly and so unpleasantly as to make parts almost unbearable to watch (or rather listen to). There is one brief interval of musical sanity late in the series, when the central figure, Becky, sings the sublime Dido's Lament, but this just reinforces how awful the rest of the music is!
There is some inconsistency in how characters are portrayed. Some are exaggerated caricatures (none more so than Miriam Margolyes as Matilda Crawley); granted that 19th century novelists did tend to draw some of their characters as such, but here it teeters perilously close to comic pantomime. Lord Steyne, one of Becky's many admirers, is also too much of a cartoon figure in this adaption, portrayed as a leering buffoon when we first encouter him, so that it's difficult to take him seriously as the vicious, unforgiving monster revealed later on.
I must be careful not to put a spoiler in here but the end was disappointing; I can't remember how the book finished but I'm sure there was more to it than was shown in this adaption which, in a way, left the viewer hanging in mid-air with several strands of the story seemingly unresolved.
All that said, the series still has plus points. Not everyone liked Natasha Little's portrayal of Becky but I thought she was brilliant as the beguiling but unscrupulous lead character. In an adaption where some performances were OTT, Nathaniel Parker provided a thoughful interpretation of Rawdon Crawley, and Philip Glenister was excellent as the long-suffering William Dobbin. It was quite amusing to see him playing a character so totally different from the larger than life Gene Hunt he was to create so memorably some years later! Tricksy camera work aside, the production is colourful and generally well-paced. Not the best costume drama TV has ever done but still fairly watchable, and at least it makes a change from yet another tired re-hash of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens*.
* Have nothing against Austen and Dickens; they're amongst my favourite authors, but they've been completely done to death on TV.