Peaky Blinders – setting up a second series?

After six weeks’ worth of episodes, ‘Peaky Blinders’ finally came to an end last night,  Set in post-Great War Birmingham, this series introduced us to the Shelby family (Arthur, Tommy, John, Ada, Finn and Aunt Polly) who ruled their town with threats, fights, and razor blades hidden in their flat caps.

Although there were real lawless gangs of the type depicted in the series in 1919’s Birmingham, the family is fictional – although the race-fixer, strutting Billy Kimber, is based on a real-life character of the same name.   Steven Knight’s series was touted before its launch on BBC2 as ‘the British Boardwalk Empire’, and certainly in stylised cinematography and eclectic soundtrack (mainly Nick Cave), it was fresh and very different to anything we have seen on British television for a while.

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Downton, we have a problem …

Now into its fourth series, something has gone rather awry with Downton Abbey.

The series which brought us such off-the-wall storylines as Matthew being paralysed in the War only to find he could suddenly walk again, a Crawley cousin who went down with the Titanic coming back to life with comedy make-up and a Canadian accent, and a butler who was in a music hall act, has gone in a rather strange direction as of last Sunday.

The attack on Anna Bates was horrifying, heartbreaking, and out of step with a show those of us who have been dedicated watchers have turned to for a bit of escapism on a Sunday night.  Yes, we have had shocking deaths (Lavinia, Lady Sybil, Matthew) and the whole storyline around Mr Bates’ arrest for the alleged murder of his first wife, but now we are in the emancipated 1920s, I was waiting for the female servants, especially those who are as strong and sympathetic as Anna, to grow in this world which gives them a bit more of a say.

By the end of the 1920s, women over 21 would be allowed to vote, and things were slowly becoming better for women who were in service.   Anna would and should be on her way to achieving some independence.  This is exactly why seeing her battered and terrified after a violent sexual attack was so shocking.

Rape should never be used as entertainment or to gain ratings, and it is never OK to imply that because of the times or the culture it was ever acceptable for a man to make a pass at a woman, and then batter and rape her if she says no.  I don’t think Downton did show this storyline as entertainment, but the fact is that the show is accepted as light entertainment, something to wind down to at the end of the weekend, and the combined effect of this expectation and the shocking, unexpected storyline was distressing.

I watch gritty shows.   I have no problem with them.  But I don’t expect my period dramas to have women abused in this way, especially when the character concerned has already been through the mill.   Modern TV seems to be saying that no one is allowed to be happy.  It makes me feel just a little bit sickened.

I’m not taking anything away from Joanne Froggart’s performance as Anna – she was excellent and convincing throughout this episode as she has been before,  She is a superb actress.  I just feel sad that the future for her character seems to be a heavy dose of misery and potential disgrace.

With regret, I’m saying goodbye to a show I really liked and from characters I had grown fond of over the past few years.  I wish them well – but the mis-step in this episode is a step too far for me.

Jane Eyre on television

In this post, I will be considering seven adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s famous book.  I will also touch briefly on a version I have not yet seen in its entirety, but only in a small number of clips.  (For a look at versions made for the big screen, see my post Jane Eyre in the cinema).

The earliest version made for the US television series, Westinghouse Studio One, was transmitted live in 1949, and features the young Charlton Heston as Mr Rochester, with Mary Sinclair as Jane.  This pair would also appear together in the same year as Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, the book by Charlotte’s sister Emily.   Studio One dramatisations were extremely short and succinct, running at approximately fifty minutes including advertisements.  The time limitation obviously means a much truncated story, although there is still time for basic plot points including Rochester’s fall from his horse, the Mason visit, and the fire at Thornfield.

Another anthology series, Matinee Theatre, provided an adaptation in 1957 with Patrick McNee and Joan Elan in the leads, in a colour production.  Again, this version runs at just under an hour and so must be selective in its storyline.  The advantage of having such a tight timeframe in which to turn around a complex book is that an adaptor must decide which characters/plots to leave out.  McNee appeared in quite a few literary adaptations in the 1950s but he doesn’t have the right personality for this role.

1957 also saw the first full-length television adaptation, made in Italy with a recognised star, Raf Vallone, as Mr Rochester, and Ilaria Occhini as Jane.  The version currently available does not have English subtitles, but those familiar with the story will be able to follow it despite the language barrier.  The settings and atmosphere feel very gothic, and the running time, across several hours, gives ample time for the whole of Bronte’s book to be at least attempted.

The previous year, the first British adaptation of the book was filmed, and although it survives in its entirety, it is not currently possible to view the whole series.  However, on viewing a couple of clips (Rochester and Jane’s first meeting, and the aftermath of the wedding) it seems that in Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater this production provides a leading man and lady who do justice to their characters, although Baker is a bit on the gruff side.

It was not until 1973 that another four-hour version appeared, in colour, this time with the Irish actress Sorcha Cusack as Jane and Michael Jayston as Mr Rochester.  This is one of my favourite adaptations, with Jayston being particularly sardonic and charming in his role, while Cusack is much his match as a rational girl whose personality develops as she falls into love.  This version of the book feels quite wide in scope and landscape, and the St John Rivers story is well-covered with Geoffrey Whitehead a sanctimonious polar opposite to Jayston’s man of hidden passions.

Ten years later, in 1983, the quiet and unassuming Zelah Clarke was cast as Jane opposite Timothy Dalton, who had previously played Heathcliff in a cinema adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  Again running at over four hours, this version is perhaps the closest to the book, and both principal actors are excellent, especially Clarke (who should have had a great career on the back of this, but instead fell into obscurity and is now retired from acting).  A particular highlight is Rochester’s gypsy trick with the Ingrams, which is great fun.

An adaptation at feature film length in 1997 suffers from a degree of miscasting as Mr Rochester, with Ciaran Hinds far too one-note as an angry and bitter man who resents his dark secret.  Samantha Morton, however, is mesmerising as Jane, delicate, naive, and trusting.  We see her shopping for her wedding trousseau in childish delight, and follow her emotional awakening as a woman with some empathy.

Finally, in 2006 we saw another four-hour version which presented another quiet Jane (Ruth Wilson), but this time one with hidden depths.  Toby Stephens was perhaps not an obvious choice for Mr Rochester, but with his Byronic brooding looks he fits the part of a damaged romantic hero, which is how the character is presented during this dramatisation.  Wilson is absolutely stunning as a girl who goes from plain to beautiful before our eyes.  She rightly went on to more high-profile roles in television (including Luther) and cinema (most recently in The Lone Ranger).