As Downton Abbey poop poops off in to the sunset and the BBC’s new War and Peace rumbles in to view, a suggestion: British television drama should all be period drama. We should stop trying to make anything else and just stick to what we’re good at. Forget nuggety, multi-layered, contemporary binge-watch series where we don’t have the money or the teams of writers to do it properly. Forget trying to copy Scandi noir – they’re perfectly good at that themselves and we can all read subtitles. Instead, stick to making bodice-busting blockbusters. When it comes to frou frou costumes, properly-trained actors, ready access to mansion houses larger than Liberia and, in particular, formal dances in big stucco ballrooms, Britain is the market leader. The Americans can’t do it because a) they don’t have the literary source material b) they don’t have the mansion houses and c) they don’t want to, because they like our stuff too much.
War and Peace was a prime example of what we do so well. First and foremost it was a feast for the eyes. Episode one, set and filmed mainly in St Petersburg, gorged itself on the baroque architecture, paying almost as much heed to the interiors of the Winter Palace as it did to the gathering storm of Napoleon’s armies. It was a series of screensavers, a set of postcards, a coffee table book in waiting. At times the camera seemed to float deliriously around huge rooms, lens agog, as if the director Tom Harper was doing his own version of From Russia With Love.
The classic 1972 BBC War and Peace, with Anthony Hopkins, is rightly venerated but like so much older television if you actually go back and watch it it looks like it was filmed through a pair of tights. Given that the carefree opulence of high society in Tsarist Russia (and what then happens to it) is so much a part of the novel, in War and Peace looks are important.
As for the inevitable filleting required to turn a book as famous for being long as for being good in to a manageable boxset, well, better call scriptwriter Andrew Davies. I’d assumed that Davies would have struggled with all of those Russian names, like almost every reader does, yet in this first episode he laid out a crystal-clear framework for what is to follow. We’re interested in three of the five aristocratic families in Tolstoy’s novel; the other two have been redacted. It’s first names only, and very quickly Davies established the Pierre-Andrei-Natasha love triangle, so that if you couldn’t remember their names, you could at least remember where they fitted in to the romance.
The TV adaptation has the added advantage that it can make the War bits, traditionally the chunks of the novel that many find themselves skipping, some of the most spectacular in the piece. In the opening episode, what we may assume will be the first battle of many was rendered with a visceral intensity, following a single soldier through the mayhem rather than wasting all the money on thousands of extras.
But most of all this War and Peace was just epically competent. Adapting a novel the size of an anvil for a modern audience on a mainstream channel is as much an act of good governance as it is of artistic endeavour. There’s less than an hour to explain what the historical situation was, meet the families, do the formal dance scene, and hint at the looming peril. This War and Peace felt impeccably well-managed, confident, light on its feet. No one will come home from Russia disappointed.
Jericho, on Thursday, was another period drama, but one from a period that TV has largely ignored – the sooty crucible of Britain’s industrial revolution. At a stroke that meant that the options for stucco drawing rooms and fancy frocks and, drat it, dancing, was gone. We were left instead with the less promising backdrop of a half-built viaduct in a field in North Yorkshire.
The series followed Annie [Jessica Raine], a schoolmaster’s wife whose husband had died, leaving large debts. Annie was booted out of her home with two children and nowhere to go. She wound up in the shanty town of Jericho (apparently there really was a shanty town called Jericho up near Ribbleshead) among the navvies building the viaduct, and from there she had to survive on her wits alone.
The flea-bitten encampment on the edge of civilisation where death is ever present and a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do is of course a well-worn trope in modern culture, from Fenimore Cooper through three quarters of a century of Westerns and on to HBO’s Deadwood. Jericho’s suggestion was that actually, we in Britain also had a wild west: it was just in the north.
This was an interesting-enough premise from which to begin, and in the main Jericho worked, with Jessica Raine well cast in the lead as a woman both indomitable yet good of heart. The main problem with Jericho was one of imaginary geography. New characters, like Mark Addy’s detective, kept just appearing, leaving little sense that this was some far-off frontier – it felt more like somewhere you might pop in to see on your way up to Darlington. As such the stakes veered between ‘Oh my lord how will they ever get out of this one?’ and, ‘Oh, they could just hop on a train to Harrogate.’
The word Beowulf brings me out in a cold sweat, thanks to hours of fruitless study of Old English at university combined with the chastening image of a topless, motion-captured Ray Winstone in that daft 2007 film in which it looked like he’d been carved out of Caramac. None the less, ITV has bet the house on the oldest story in the Anglo-Saxon book, and decided to turn it in to a twelve-part family drama for the 7pm slot. Beowulf (Kieran Bew), for years a mercenary, has returned to the land of his childhood and now faces political intrigue, old rivalries and a lot of monsters.
I pity the parent who had to sit down with their family and explain what in the sweet halls of Hrothgar was going on here. I was reminded less of a masterpiece of English poetry, more of the video to Wild Boys by Duran Duran – an impenetrable bog of bad haircuts, leather strapping, sodden pelts and dodgy dialogue. Monstrously misconceived, this Beowful needs slaying.