Costume dramas

21st February 1997 at 00:00
The English Programme:Not as Good as the Book Channel 4 Mondays 10.40-11.05am Age range: 14-16

Don't be fooled by the title. Not as Good as the Book doesn't dwell exclusively on the obvious pitfalls involved in bringing literature to the screen. Instead, it explores territory which is likely to be far more exciting for sixth-formers, bright GCSE students and indeed anyone who has been suffering withdrawal symptoms since the disappearance of BBC2's The Late Show.

The three programmes focus on how a narrative (on the page or on celluloid) can reflect the preoccupations of the age in which it is told. They do so with a fascinating anthology of film clips and an impressive array of talking heads. These include Joan Bakewell, Beryl Bainbridge, Stephen Frears, Fay Weldon, Susanah York - and, of course, Andrew Davies.

No series about adaptation would be complete without him. Among his many credits, is that of the recent BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. He eloquently defends his craft, explaining why he omitted some incidents but included others that aren't in the novel. So viewers will discover why the television Darcy felt a compelling urge to dive into a lake and emerge in skin-clinging shirt.

The 1940 Hollywood version took liberties that would have even Mr Davies reaching for the smelling salts. For instance, the coach race between the Lucas gels and the bevy of Bennets might have seemed more appropriate in Annie Get Your Gun. But, as presenter Angie Errigo explains, it vividly dramatises the rivalry between two families eager to corner the market in eligible bachelors.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, however faithful to the original, has to sacrifice the author's uniquely incisive prose. The success of the various film and television versions, however, underline that even without Austen's guiding presence, the story still retains its peculiar potency. It is, as the talking heads explain, a fairy tale that will remain popular as long as people want to believe the myth that being truly in love leads inexorably to being truly rich.

The second programme features a story that has undoubtedly achieved mythic status. Pupils need not have read the novel, or seen the cinema's many treatments of it, to know about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ms Errigo's comparison of the various adaptations is masterly - especially so since it explores subtle cultural and moral issues without ever going over the heads of a young audience.

For example, R L Stevenson goes to great lengths in his novel to establish that, although Hyde alarms everyone he meets, it isn't because there is anything unusual about his appearance. But a visual medium must adhere to different rules: in the 1941 movie he must look as bad as he is. In the programme a "disability theorist" reflects on the absurdity and the disturbing implications of this simplistic view. The 1996 version (titled Mary Reilly) offers a different perspective. Hyde is still totally evil, but instead of being depicted as a monster he is, in fact, decidedly dishier than his alter ego. Pupils are asked to ponder the problems posed by the awkward truth that evil can often be more attractive than good.

It's a problem that Jane Eyre knew all about. She is featured in the final programme which explores how movie-makers have coped with a heroine who somehow manages to be head-over-heels in love, while at the same time being intelligent, devout and determined not to compromise her integrity. Even more of a challenge, they have had to find stars who are willing to appear as plain as Charlotte Bront declares Jane to be. By emphasising and rejoicing in the feminist theme of the story, Ms Errigo and her assorted talking heads will persuade adolescents that Jane Eyre is a novel they must read andor a film they must see.

That indeed is the strength of the whole series. It illustrates very convincingly that novels, films and plays are entertaining and, for those who are willing to think about them, are also much more than mere entertainment. Teachers will welcome the accompanying background notes. They should also stock up on videos of a few of the featured productions. And on the books, of course.

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