It's faithful, but unfortunately it seems to think that's enough. Vanity Fair is a famous 19th century classic, but it also has an evil protagonist and it's sometimes more of a polemic against society than a drama. There's plenty of potential in there, but this absolutely isn't one of those stories where everyone concerned can put their feet up and take it easy.
Firstly, some history. Vanity Fair was beloved of early cinema, with eight adaptations I know of up to the 1930s, but after that it became a favourite of the BBC. They've done it four times so far, in 1956, 1967, 1987 and 1998
. In contrast the only movie in the last seventy years is the 2004 Reese Witherspoon one
. I've no idea whether or not the 1956 Joyce Redman adaptation still exists, but it only ran for six half-hour episodes anyway. On the other hand, the 1987 Eve Matheson series looks the longest at sixteen half-hour episodes and would have included Patrick Troughton if he hadn't died before filming. However the only ones I could find on DVD are the 1967 and 1998
versions, so those I have.
All of these would face the same problem, though, i.e. Thackeray's original novel. You can't fault its scope or its ambition, but it's a spiky, huge, awkward thing that's deliberately making itself hard to love. It paints a horrible picture of human nature, its protagonist is a destroyer of people's lives and its supporting cast are greedy, stupid, self-absorbed, dangerous and/or ruled by their dicks. Great chunks of the book don't make dramatic sense unless also read as a criticism of then-contemporary society, although Thackeray can hardly be accused of not emphasising this reading. Even his good people aren't flawless. Amelia Sedley is passive, needy and emotionally unstable, treating Captain Dobbin like dirt. The noble Dobbin is the book's most sympathetic character, but even he's prone to melancholy and martrydom.
For my money, the book only becomes truly dramatic towards the end. By this point Becky is a figure of terror for the audience, a Dracula in skirts. A few damaged survivors of the novel find her in desperate straits... and in response she does the only good thing she ever did in her life, then follows it up with something abominable. Admittedly Thackeray is technically leaving room for doubt, but personally I regard it as almost kinky to argue that Becky didn't round off her adventures with a murder. This 1967 adaptation is mostly faithful, but it cuts out that last bit! Imagine my reaction. The one bit of the original book I adore and it's gone. Admittedly there's a lot to be said for the ending they've replaced it with, as Becky remembers her past in the form of voice-overs from earlier episodes, but it's a straightforward redemptive finale and lacks the original's nastiness. That's a hell of a thing to omit.
My other big problem is with the acting. It's not that anyone's bad. On the contrary, everyone's work is honest, intelligent and well-grounded in the text. These are performances with integrity and I'm not going to get offended at Susan Hampshire's 1973 Emmy award for Actress in a Leading Role. (It got shown five years after its UK broadcast as part of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS.) Everyone's keeping it controlled and realistic... which means that no one's larger than life. No one's having fun with the piece, especially not Hampshire. Her version of Becky is such a cold, cold bitch that she's not even entertaining to watch. Is she charming? I'd sooner spend time with my guinea pigs. Is she desirable? Not in a million years, despite her cleavage. Would you invite her to your dinner parties? Nope. She can do impersonations, but she's so blatantly uninterested in other people that I can't imagine her being particularly good company. We all know Becky's a monster, but this one's not even trying to hide it.
Personally I see this as missing the point of the character. Becky's supposed to be vivacious and fun. She has to be for the plot to work!
The obvious way of turbo-charging Vanity Fair for an audience would seem to be its villains, but they're just one missed opportunity after another. Lord Steyn is forgettable rather than frightening, while I was disappointed that they pronounced his name "Steen". Sir Pitt Crawley is dull, when he should have been Dickensian. Matilda Crawley is twittery and uninteresting. Admittedly I quite liked Richard Caldicot's Mr. Osborne, but he's a relatively minor character. Technically speaking these are all good performances and probably more realistic than what I'd been hoping for, but it means no one's doing anything extra to lift the story.
The younger leads are a mixed bag. John Moffatt is unimpressive as Jos Sedley, although in fairness the character is a very unimpressive man. Marilyn Taylerson is hard to like as Amelia Osborne, striking me as even more of a wet blanket than Thackeray's Amelia and fully deserving everything ever said about her. However the three leading men are all doing good work. Bryan Marshall's Dobbin is a pillar of integrity, Roy Marsden's George is suitably unreliable and Dyson Lovell makes for an enjoyably villainous Rawdon. I liked Lovell a lot, actually. You could imagine him tying women to railway tracks, yet being with Becky makes us appreciate all his virtues that she lacks. He cares about their son, for starters. Even his murderous rage is at least an honest reaction. Lovell would soon give up screen acting and become a producer, incidentally.
Episode one is probably the worst, making a whole bunch of mistakes and never really coming to life dramatically. Becky's courting of Jos takes place over the period of a week, but the episode hasn't a clue how to depict that. Amelia is wet. Becky isn't interesting enough to hate. Crawley Hall is joyless and dull, with Sir Pitt being a particular letdown. Becky writes letters by saying aloud what she's writing, thus forcing the actress to scrawl her words at ludicrous speed. Later she sings a song which lasts nearly two minutes, or in subjective audience time 1000000000 years. The final line of the episode doesn't have any weight, merely coming across as a place to stop. Worst of all though is Vauxhall, which gets across none of its Austen-esque undertones to the audience. We get no sense of how Becky or anyone else feels. It's just a mish-mash of Jos being loud and drunk.
I was also reminded that I dislike the fashions at the start of the 19th century. Maternity dresses, ugh. However I can overlook having a black servant called Sambo because there's one in Thackeray's novel too. Similarly from the original is episode two's scene with Miss Swartz, which could be accused of racism in how it's expecting the audience to react. However by this point the plot's thickening. There are some huge revelations here, some of which get rather perfunctory reaction shots and others ("it's Rawdon") being very funny. I was also starting to build up a good solid hatred of Becky, which was an improvement on episode one. She's a sodding vampire! By the way, is it just me or had Hampshire decided that Becky would deliberately hide her intelligence from men?
Episode three is the strongest. That's the one which takes us to the Napoleonic Wars and lets the series pretend to be a war epic, which it does rather well. The BBC's certainly pulled out all the stops, doing a regimental ball so big that it had to be shot on film rather than in the studio. I've heard it whispered that this was apparently their first colour production. We have blood, fear, last goodbyes and gloating Belgian servants cheering on Napoleon. The wounded come back from battle with terrible stories and all the characters come across more clearly under stress. "They're going to stand in a place called Waterloo." It's stirring stuff and from this point on we're more invested in what happens.
Episode four was always going to be the biggest challenge. This is the one where Becky and Rawdon really let rip as the vampires they are and Thackeray wallows in their evil. It's the most unpleasant episode, but on the other hand it also has Becky's comeuppance. "I'm innocent." Ha ha ha. Frankly the episode works better than I'd expected it to, building the story's spine around Lord Steyn and always being clear about how it's moving events forward. Rawdon slapping Steyn was almost as wet as Amelia, though.
Episode five is a curate's egg. I had a lot of fun with Becky's downfall, while Rawdon's fury is good too. However the Dobbin-Amelia scenes feel to me as if they're coming from the head rather than the heart. I don't cast doubt on the integrity of the performances, but I can't say that I was as stirred as I think I should have been. Nevertheless it's strong, in its way, and this is undoubtedly the meat of the story. I'm sure the production team were pleased with how it all ended. For some reason it seemed clearer here than I remembered that Becky at the end had been supporting herself through prostitution, though.
Am I glad I watched this mini-series? Yes, definitely. Did I enjoy it? In the end, yes, although I think the original Vanity Fair is rather spikier and more complicated than mere entertainment. Did I think it was a good adaptation? Not really, no. It's faithful to the letter of the text, but I think it fails at the subtler challenges. It's worthy but it's never inspired, even if it's going so far as to do a version of Thackeray's puppet motif in the opening and closing title sequences. Besides, there are things it can't do by the nature of television. It can't portray the passing of the years and generations as can a novelist. The children of Amelia and Becky will probably never be done justice in any adaptation, which is a shame.
Part three was good with its portrayal of the Napoleonic Wars, though.