In 2015 the BBC ambitiously attempted adaptations of three very different books: a complex historical drama, a magical fantasy epic and a classic murder mystery, and they became three of my favourite dramas of last year.
Hilary Mantel’s big bestsellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were carefully squeezed into 6 hour-long episodes of high-class conspiracy, courtly intrigue, royal marriage woes and dimly-lit conversations. Anchored by an incredible performance by Mark Rylance as the quietly cunning Thomas Cromwell, with good support from Damian Lewis’ unusually svelte Henry VIII and Clare Foy as his unfortunate wife Anne Boleyn, the series was an award-winning success.
My historical knowledge of the period isn’t the best, which at first led to a bit of confusion about who was who and why they were important, and a lot of me desperately trying to remember high-school history lessons about Henry VIII. However, after the first couple of episodes it was easy to sink into the story. Lack of historical knowledge was actually helpful as it meant that the twists and turns of the plot, which mostly unfold through quiet dialogue and secret plans slowly being unveiled, came as a complete surprise.
Later in the year was a series based on Susanna Clarke’s alternate-universe Victorian drama with magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This doorstopper of a book, set around the Napoleonic wars, is one of the most highly-praised fantasy novels of the 21st century and the adaptation looked promising, but I had some reservations when I saw that it was being adapted by Peter Harness, whose last writing credit was an episode of Doctor Who where the Moon turns out to be an egg with a monster inside and everyone worries about it hatching but when it does hatch the monster immediately craps out another moon to replace it and flies away.
Seriously. How did that get past the first draft?
So it was with some relief and quite a lot of surprise that JS&MN became one of my favourite shows of the year, expertly mixing gothic otherworldly locations, spectacular special effects and wry humour into a Victorian setting.
Eddie Marsan was great as the sensible and stubborn Mr Norrell but the show was stolen by Bertie Carvel as Norrell’s polar opposite, the lovable eccentric Jonathan Strange who becomes fascinated by the dark, maddening power of forbidden magic which hasn’t been practiced in England for many years.
The two have great chemistry together which makes it easy to care about their bumpy, slightly reluctant partnership. There’s plenty of the dark, the creepy and the – ahem – Strange, nicely balanced with a fair amount of silliness.
Perhaps the embodiment of this silly/creepy balance is Marc Warren’s performance as The Gentleman, the mysterious Big Bad of the series that deals with the souls of the dead and shows up to menace and entrap those who summon him. He also happens to be a fairy with big white eyebrows wearing a ridiculous wig.
I loved the world and characters that the show brought to life and will be getting the book to experience more of it, though because of Vincent Franklin’s slightly hammy turn as Drawlight I think his yell of ‘MISTER NORRRRRRRRREELLLL’ will echo round my skull whenever I read Norrell’s name.
To close out the year, there was a three-part adaptation of the most popular murder mystery of all time, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, because everyone loves a nice bit of multiple homicide at Christmastime.
The book was lingering on a bookshelf somewhere in my room, unloved and unread like many of my ‘buy-now, get-around-to-it-eventually’ books that I seem to compulsively collect.
So when the poor unfortunate souls that get invited to a remote island for the world’s worst dinner party start dropping like flies, I had no clue whodunnit, my guess changed several times (always hopelessly wrong) and I was gripped til the very end.
The whole thing is soaked in an oppressive gloomy atmosphere, with plenty of overcast skies, grey scenery, an entertainingly over-the-top use of sinister strings in the soundtrack – especially during the voyage to the Cornish Island of Death and Misery – and lots of of quiet shots of the characters looking suspicious. When they arrive at the extravagant mansion where they’ll spend their final nights, they are greeted by a butler who is so clearly and hilariously untrustworthy he might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘You’re All Doomed’.
It’s not subtle, quite the opposite, but it’s enjoyably pulpy and ominous. Most of the ten corpses-in-waiting are wonderfully obnoxious and watching them as they clash, become increasingly paranoid and reveal how loathsome they really are is fun and tense.
It’s fair to say then that the Beeb has proved to be quite adept at adapting novels and abridging chunky bestsellers, turning them into brilliant, engaging television. Now, fresh off the success and acclaim of these three series, they’re attempting to trim one of the most intimidatingly-huge and dauntingly-dense novels of all time, War and Peace, into 6 hours.
Well… good luck with that.