Magazine article The Spectator

Dumbing Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Dumbing Up

Article excerpt

There was a terribly useful article in the Telegraph the other day explaining why the BBC's new adaptation of Vanity Fair is going to change the face of costume drama. Unfortunately, I didn't read it and I can't find the issue it was in so what I've just tried to do is to find it on the Internet. But my wretched machine crashed and I've now wasted half an hour's valuable writing time sorting it out which is a real bugger because any second I've got to dash up to the Midlands to collect the rat from his boarding-school for half term and apparently the traffic's going to be hell because of the Birmingham Motor Show. So if this week's column's rubbish it's not my fault, all right?

Anyway, the reason I was trying to find that article is that I've never read Vanity Fair and I thought the piece might contain some useful facts that I could crib. How many liberties has Andrew Davies taken with Thackeray's text? How much did the series cost? Why does it look so radically different? That sort of thing. As it is I'm just going to have to do it all off the top of my head.

Here's one thing, though, of which I'm fairly certain. Vanity Fair (BBC 1, Sunday) is a masterpiece. It might even be the finest costume drama of the decade, which is quite an achievement when you think of all the first-rate competition - Our Mutual Friend, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice et al. Most of it, of course, written by the great Andrew Davies.

Perhaps I'm a bit biased here, because I adore and worship the man. Not just because he's always incredibly helpful and good for a startling quote when I ring him up while researching pieces like the one I did the other day on digital sex. Nor because he's terribly engaging company, with the filthiest mind of anyone I know. But also because he has done such sterling service in the causes of supremely watchable television (e.g. A Very Peculiar Practice, and his horribly underrated sitcom, co-written with Bernadette Davis, Game On) and of classic English literature.

The latter cause, I'm sure you'll agree, is desperately important because the way things are going we're soon going to see the advent of a generation which knows everything there is to know about Ibo poetry, traditional slave chanting and Maya Angelou but damn all about multiculturally irrelevant has-beens like Austen, Defoe and Thackeray. Television -- supposedly the enemy of reading - may be their only chance of survival.

Davies's gift is to make the classics seem sexy and modern without sacrificing their integrity. …

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