Every First Time Watch During Lockdown Part 4 – Adaptations

DANIEL DERONDA (2002, Tom Hooper)

Mini-series based on George Eliot’s novel about a young man (Hugh Dancy) raised by a rich guardian who becomes increasingly torn between his privileged upper class upbringing and his need to find out more about his mysterious origins. This conflict is mirrored in his relationships with two women. Gwendoline (Romola Garai) a flighty minor aristocrat with a mercenary nature, and Jewish musician Mirah (Jodhi May) he saves from drowning. Kind of wish Hooper had stayed making costume dramas for the BBC because this is easily the best thing he’s done.

DRACULA (1968, Patrick Dromgoole)

Pared down version of Stoker’s novel made as part of ITV’s Mystery and Imagination anthology series. It begins halfway through the book with Dracula already present in England and making his presence felt amongst the local aristocracy. There’s nothing you won’t have seen in other adaptations but it’s worth seeing just for the late great Denholm Elliot as a Mandrake the Magician looking Dracula who clearly detests these Little Englanders and their contempt for his foreign background.

MANSFIELD PARK (1999, Patricia Rozema)

Inventive take on Jane Austen’s novel which manages to weave contemporaneous events and aspects of the author’s own life into the screenplay. I remember this coming out to generally poor reviews most of whom seemed to be from purists upset at the changes writer-director Patricia Rozman made to the original, but this turned out to be great. Up there with Persuasion (1995, Roger Michell) and the Emma mini-series from 2009 which coincidentally also features Jonny Lee Miller.


This 13-part Anglo-German co-production between HTV and Tele-Munchen is more faithful to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale than the otherwise excellent 71′ Kidnapped (Delbert Mann) which removed the novel’s ambiguity about who committed the story’s murder. Though it’s filmed in Scotland half the cast including lead actor Ekkehardt Belle are German and dubbed with Scottish accents which was distracting at first. Belle plays David Balfour, a teenager disinherited by his miserly old uncle and sold to a ship’s captain on a vessel headed to the New World. Onboard he meets Alan Breck Stewart (David McCallum), a dashing Jacobite rebel who’s trying to get back to France after surviving the massacre at Culloden. If there’s a ship in a Stevenson novel it will surely sink and so the pair end up washed ashore and on the run in the Highlands from redcoats and from clans loyal to the British Crown. HTV had a great track record producing these kinds of adventure shows in the 70s’ and early 80s.’ Arthur of the Britons, Dick Turpin, Smuggler, and Robin of Sherwood all shared a similar mixture of action and humour with a more reflective and melancholy side.


I’ve sat through all seven hours of the great Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace so I think I’ve earned the right to enjoy a really trashy version. This Franco-Italian-German Euro-pudding approaches Tolstoy’s epic novel with all the gravitas of a prime-time US soap opera and is all the better for it. The cast is made up of all different nationalities to suit each market with Clemence Poesy as Natasha, Malcolm McDowell as Prince Bolkonsky Snr, and German actor Alexander Beyer (Deutschland 83/86) as Pierre. In terms of physicality Alessio Boni (Arrivederci Amore Ciao, The Best of Youth) is the perfect fit for the melancholy Andrej Bolkonsky, but unfortunately in the English version he’s been badly dubbed over.

Every First Time Watch Part 3 – Historical Dramas

BEAU BRUMMEL: THIS CHARMING MAN (2006, Philippa Lowthorpe)

Beau Brummell was apparently an impoverished dandy who used his friendship with the Prince Regent (a dippy Hugh Bonneville) to advance his position in society and dodge the many creditors who were knocking at his door. There’s a big glossy Technicolor 50s’ movie starring Stewart Granger and Peter Ustinov which covers more ground but I much prefer this low-key approach. The focus is entirely on the relationship between these two men and a small group of hangers-on. Brummell is stylist and advisor to the Prince Regent, mostly providing fashion tips like don’t wear powdered wigs and go easy on the white make-up. But Brummell overreaches himself and damages the relationship by falling in with persona non grata Lord Byron (Matthew Rhys) then calling his boss fat at a society event. Everybody here is a dreadful snob but the actors make them sympathetic. Pompous though he may be, Bonneville’s Prince genuinely thought he’d made a friend so his cruel response to having his fragile ego damaged is understandable. Brummell is played by a peak-period James Purefoy so it’s difficult not to like him or feel sorry when he’s cast out by all the other fancy wanks.

THE CLEOPATRAS (TV series, 1983)

There’s seven Cleopatras hence the pluralised title and this eight-part series goes through them like a slasher movie. It starts in 145 BC and ends in 35 BC with the death of the most famous Cleopatra of them all. This is such a strange and entertaining show. On the one hand it has that overstuffed feeling common in British television costume dramas of the 70s’/80s.’ Everything’s filmed in a studio and the actors are dialling up the theatricality to the nines. But there’s HBO levels of nudity and violence while the editing uses wipe transitions which I can’t ever recall being used in a BBC costume drama. Philip Mackie’s screenplay has plenty of gallows humour. Kings and Queens die in a variety of gruesome ways and their deaths are treated like a terrible sad joke, then it’s oh well then, on to the next one.

THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH (TV mini-series, 1985)

Mini-series covering the the race to reach the South Pole between the ill-fated Captain Scott (Martin Shaw) and his methodical Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen (Sverre Anker Ousdal). It doesn’t start out as a race. Scott had been punted from the navy for crashing a battleship and only undertakes the expedition in search of glory for the British Empire and to wind up Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen’s original destination was supposed to be the North Pole but he found out his old mentor Frederick Cook was already there so he made a last minute decision to change his route surprising both his financial backers and his crew. It’s an even-handed account giving equal time to both men. The Last Place On Earth offers a revisionist review of Scott’s voyage undercutting the myth of British exceptionalism while also presenting the conditions that breeds that superiority complex. The final episode manages to be incredibly moving and infuriating. Scott fails but gets the glory and his journals are edited to make him seem more heroic. Conversely Amundsen gets to the Pole but makes enemies in high places at home for refusing to fulfil his original journey to the North. Worse still is the condescending attitude he experiences from British and US audiences when he tours afterwards. “You’re the guy who ate the dogs” a New Yorker says to him.

PRISONOR OF HONOUR (1991, Ken Russell)

Ken Russell playing it straight here with this TV movie made for HBO based on a notorious late 19th century scandal. The Dreyfus Affair dragged on for over a decade and divided French society at the time. It also in retrospect feels like a precursor to the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century. Colonel Picquat (Richard Dreyfuss) is appointed to investigate Dreyfus (Kenneth Colley) knowing full well he’s supposed to find evidence of the man’s guilt. Instead Picquat becomes convinced the Jewish army officer is being used as a scapegoat by his superiors. Prisoner of Honour is unusually restrained for late-period Russell but it’s well worth a look. Russell went back to TV after this reuniting with his old Monitor colleague Melvyn Bragg making yearly arts documentaries for The South Bank Show and a well-received adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1993).