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Middlemarch (1994) vs Days of Hope (1975)

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2020

The BBC’s Dorothea and Will

The BBC is currently broadcasting and adaptation  of Vikram Seth’s novel, ‘A Suitable Boy’. A post on ‘The Case for Global Film’, ‘A suitable writer for A Suitable Boy’,  includes the question as to whether Andrew Davies was the right choice to adapt this highly praised novel from the Indian sub-continent for television. This reminded me of an article I wrote in the 1990s when Andrew Davies adapted the seminal English novel ‘Middlemarch’ [by George Eliot) for BBC television in 1994. My argument then would raise questions about Davies suitability, not because of his ethnicity, but because of the political and aesthetic values that inform his work. He is clearly a skilled worker at adaptation but he also carries the baggage of the British class and colonial values. So I present my original article below, with some necessary amendments for the changes in time; hopefully it will prove interesting. The article compared the adaptations on BBC television of Eliot’s novel and a series written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, Days of Hope, that followed several working class characters through World War I up until the seismic General Strike of 1926.

Dorothea Brooke, heroine of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, was an important icon for the women’s movement of the 1970s. In Andrew Davies’ 1994 adaptation, she takes a back seat to the less substantial pairing of Lydgate and Rosamund Vincy. A rather different treatment of gender, class and politics is found in the earlier four part series Days of Hope; which was seen as controversial at the time, both in the mainstream media and amongst academics. I have included production detail and the main sources in  notes at the end.

My starting point was some teaching with students on City & Guilds 7700. We were covering the critical analysis module using some Open University materials’ which compared, in terms of competing realisms, four 1970s television programmes; The Twenties Revisited, Nine Days in ’26, Upstairs Downstairs and Days of Hope . All the programmes dealt in some way with the 1926 General Strike, and the OU commentators compared the interests and values and the formal strategies employed by the programmes, and in doing so discussed some of the strands of a somewhat academic controversy surrounding the concept of realism and Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (also ‘authored’ by writer Jim Allen and producer Tony Garnett).

Filming ‘Days of Hope’

Loach was a filmmaker who figured prominently in our examples from film and television (e.g. Cathy Come Home, BBC 1966) and the students were familiar with his work. By chance, all this happened during transmission of BBC’s Middlemarch. So we were able to discuss the question of realism, style and content, the interests and values and their boundaries in British television, and some key developments within it over two decades.

I also re-read the series of articles, appearing mainly in the journal ‘Screen’ where the debate about realism and Days of Hope was published; re-confirming my earlier suspicion that the whole critique of Loach’s work and its realist approach was flawed with questionable assumptions. A useful antidote to this was an article by Colin Sparks  in the political journal ‘International Socialism’ which amplified a point made by Colin McArthur in the debate in ‘Screen’;  that there were so many different examples of realism and that the concept was general beyond belief. One example which showed some of the traits of a realist text was the Hollywood musical, but did anyone imagine that audiences read musicals as real? More seriously, the real world was more than a set of appearances, authentic scenery, accents, costumes etc.: it was a set of social relations, and even when the argument about realism was applied to the nineteenth century novel, it failed to account for the reality for the readers of the frequently dramatised and heightened relations of literary texts.

To take the two examples mentioned, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Jim Allen’s Days of Hop‘; while both take great pains to represent the visual, aural and cultural surface of the region and time in which their stories are set, it is apparent to the reader that the narrative foreshortens the historical action, selecting from it and re-emphasising some events rather than others.

In fact, both works are retrospective, returning to a period about fifty years earlier that has become significant because of the replaying of particular social contradictions around class, but with Eliot this is the democratic movement of the 1830s and 1870s, with Allen it is the industrial movements of the 1920s and 1970s.

There are a number of similarities between the two stories: each centres on a woman who marries a man above herself in the social structure and whom she looks up to both culturally and politically. In the course of the narrative this man is discredited and the heroine has to break free from him. (Dorothea – Casaubon, Sarah – Philip). Crucial in this turnabout is another man, of lower class origins than the husband, and to begin with also seen as culturally or politically weak. His developing relationship with the heroine parallels her distancing from the husband figure. (Dorothea – Will, Sarah – Ben). By the end of the story, this new pairing is embarked on the political project which is privileged by the narrative. Despite Ben and Sarah being brother and sister, the other pair is not really more sexual. In fact, both stories restrict any reference to sexuality to the actual problem relationship between husband and wife.

The political strands of the stories also parallel. Eliot portrays the disruption in bourgeois Middlemarch’s lives of the agitation and conflict surrounding the 1832 Reform Act. Equally disruptive is the arrival of the railways, the manifestation of the new class power that was one of the most powerful contradictions fuelling reform. Nearly a century later, and from a working -class perspective, Allen (with Loach et al) portrays the disruptions consequent on revolutionary class politics, centring on contending class fractions for leadership of the new working-class movement, which in Britain came to a head around the General Strike. The other manifestation of economic and class struggle is the re-alignment of capital following the First World War and the increasing importance of imperialist exploitation. The ideological differences between the two narratives can be ascribed to both temporal and political changes; but it is interesting that there are such strong similarities in the narrative structures. This is partly due to the common political intentions of Eliot and Allen; Loach. Both works aim to arouse the sympathy of the reader for the representative characters and against the social oppression and exploitation they suffer. Both use facets of the melodrama of protest model, though the modern work is more centrally protest.

Of course, Eliot is writing a novel, Allen (with Loach and Garnett and the rest of the crew) are making a film. And the form used by the latter has much more in common with film and television drama, like the BBC version of Eliot’s novel. For this version, the key members of the production team all shared some notion of producing a realist work:

“. . . if you define realism as portraying life with all its warts rather than an idealised form of life as you would like it. Realism is the way we’ve done it.”

The OU articles examined questions of form and style by comparing Days of Hope with the episode of Upstairs Downstairs which dramatised the days in which the General Strike occurred. The latter shares the standard and traditional forms of television drama (itself very similar to the conventions of the Hollywood Cinema). The values of the drama are carefully embodied in the characters, the viewer is placed by both character and scene position and that of the camera to facilitate identification with the dominant character and message. The former appears less carefully structured, having the look and sound more associated with documentary. Characters and events seem to stumble into view rather than seamlessly unfold. One of my favourite such moments is in the last episode of Days of Hope, when Philip, fearful of the growing extremism of Ben and Sarah, arrives at a Council of Action meeting. While he (and we) can hear the discussion in the meeting, he and we (via the camera) have to struggle past children playing with a makeshift shying stall, featuring Churchill and Baldwin as cardboard cut-outs.

The household arranged by class

The Allen/ Loach work is doing more than just recreate the documentary mode, or mark itself off from traditional costume drama; it is providing a way of seeing/ hearing that attempts to articulate the way workers usually see and learn. Fliot’s novel, while constructed round a middle-class character, also includes working-class views and expressions. In an excellent analysis, Andrew Britton has exemplified such an instance while critiquing simplistic notions of realism. His points about Eliot’s authorial voice are very important:

“(she) emphatically alerts us to . ” . the experience, the dramatic world, the narrative voice, the reader. The foregrounding of narration has the effect of compelling us to reconsider our reading and perhaps criticise it’.”

Yet one of the main authors of the television version preferred to:

“‘let the tale tell itself . . . one thing I’ve always hated about George Eliot is the way she’ll write a brilliantly dramatic and moving scene and then spend the next few pages pointing out the subtleties, just in case we missed them”

It is Davies who misses the point. For me, the BBC version bears all the recognisable facets of a programme like Upstairs Downstairs. Visually, the programmes replicate the conventions of mainstream television and film dramas, asking the viewer to experience the story and identify with the characters, but not encouraging distancing and questioning. The drama centres on the several romances which are affected by the social movements, whereas Eliot’s novel seems to me to do the reverse. Most strongly this comes out in the fate of Eliot’s two great motifs, political reform and the economic imperative of railway development.

The adaptation opens with the arrival of a character on the new-fangled train which is to so disrupt Middlemarch society. Yet this early contradiction then slides out of the narrative for three episodes; as if the film-makers had detected Eliot’s mechanism, but failed to understand its import. Similarly, the question of reform, which never achieves the all-pervasive impact it establishes in the novel; Mr Brooke’s powerful failure at the hustings becomes an exercise in character by the actor Robert Hardy. Story takes precedence over narration.

Of course, to the modern viewer it might all seem quaint – democracy is passé and trains are on the way out. But to do justice to the political and artistic impact of the novel, the film-makers either needed to bring these contradictions to life or to re-visualise them. Days of Hope does just this, using the parallels available to the modern viewer to develop the impact of particular points. At a discussion after a Council of Action, the middle-class lawyer/ intellectual discourses on the lessons of the failed German Revolution, as a warning to England’s revolutionaries deliberately picking up ‘Socialism in one country’. Whilst this scene is not central to the course of the strike, it is making a definite political point – one that was a direct play to the contemporary audience and debates in the early 1970s.

But the naturalism of the BBC’s Middlemarch is of a different order. it reduces the feminist critique of 1870, so that, at the end, carrying a candle up a dark staircase, Dorothea has become the wise virgin who supports Will Ladislaw. Given her liberation, and the progressive political developments within the story, the image seems romantic rather than instructive. We do actually hear the narration of George Eliot in voice-over, but there is no counter-point, as all her earlier narrative comment has been removed. I find it difficult to believe that viewers really think that the General Strike was just like Days of Hope or that women’s oppression in nineteenth century England was just like Middlemarch. But, I do think they engage with both their personal lives and their wider social ones.

Ben and Sarah are representations for a class view of one important story in our past: Dorothea is one of the more powerful representations of women’s struggles in an earlier past. Yet the most common praise heaped on the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch is for the ‘quality’ of its acting. If that is what impresses the viewer/reader most, I find it disturbing. When I first read ‘Middlemarch’, whilst I fell in love with Dorothea, my final feeling about the novel was still its powerful critique of ,women’s oppression and its intricate relationship to the political and economic complexion of the times. My regard for Sarah and Ben in Days of Hope was equally tied to sympathy for their struggle and objections to their oppressors, but was also part of a real intellectual engagement with the argument of the films (with which I do not totally agree). The 1870s novel and 1970s film are both real for me because they dramatise the history of our society; the actions of the stories show society and individuals interacting, and history acting on both. The BBC has dramatised, I fear, only romance, costumes and nostalgia. In their adaptation of the novel, history does not act, only the characters.

I expected that the new drama would suffer from similar conventionality, [I have not watched it]. The last Andrew Davies adaptation that I watched was the BBC version of Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ (2005): i gave up on it. Several commentators have suggested that if Dickens was writing today it would be for television soaps! This seems to me anachronistic. Dickens was a product of C19th Victorian Britain when he lived and worked. In ‘Bleak House’ the  central thematic is ‘muck’: Dickens responding to and criticising the ‘muck’ of the Victorian capital; the latter word in both senses. I did not really find this theme central in the several episodes of the BBC adaptation that I watched.

Notes:

The Open University material is not currently in use but was published for the now defunct OU Popular Culture Course and is partly available in ‘Popular Television and Film’, Bennett, Boyd-Bowman, Mercer & Woolacott eds.. BFI 1981. It includes a substantial part of an important article by Colin MacArthur.

Middlemarch BBC 1994 in seven episodes. Leading players: Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke: Douglas Hodge as Dr. Tertius Lydgate: Robert Hardy    as Arthur Brooke: Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy: Rufus Sewel as Will Ladislaw: Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy: Rachel Power as Mary Garth.

Leading production people: Series Directed by Anthony Page: Series Produced by Louis Marks: Series Music by Christopher Gunning: Stanley Myers: Series Cinematography by Brian Tufano: Series Film Editing by Jerry Leon and Paul Tothill: Series Production Design by Gerry Scott: Series Art Direction by Mark Kebby: Series Costume Design by Anushia Nieradzik. The writer was Andrew Davies and he is quoted, along with production detail,  in ‘Screening Middlemarch C19th Novel to 90’s Television’, BBC and BFI.

Days of Hope (1975) is four separate films [shot on 16mm] covering the Great War and pacificism (1916: Joining Up), the British Army in Ireland and class conflict in mining communities (1921: Lockout), Labour Party ‘reformism’ and the British Communist Movement (1924: Labour Government) and 1926: General Strike. It was ( in now familiar fashion) the subject of both a Times editorial attack and a ‘balancing’ BBC discussion programme.

Leading players: Paul Copley as Ben Matthews: Pamela Brighton    Pamela Brighton as Sarah Hargreaves: Nikolas Simmonds as Philip Hargreaves.

Leading production people: Series Music by Marc Wilkinson: Series Cinematography by

John Else and Tony Pierce-Roberts: Series Film Editing by Roger Waugh: Series Production Design by Martin Johnson: Series Costume Design by Sally Nieper.

Upstairs Downstairs was a very successful videotaped drama from London Weekend Television which ran in five thirteen week series between 1971 and 1975, covering British social history from the Edwardian era until the early 1930s. The series was the subject of a long essay in ‘Movie’ No 21 Autumn 1975, in which Charles Barr, Jim Hillier and Victor Perkins compared it to the ‘quality British Cinema’ of the 1940s in terms of production techniques and audience appeal.

Colin Sparks, A Marxist Guide to Contemporary Film Theory in International Socialism 34 1987

Andrew Britton comments on ‘Middlemarch’ in ‘Metaphor and Mimesis: Madame de’ in ‘Movie’ 29/30.

The original article was in ‘in the picture’, issue 24, autumn 1994

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