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TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES
A friend of mine recently expressed amazement after I told her I went straight from watching the 2003 ITV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the 1978 BBC version of the same novel, as scripted by the celebrated television playwright Dennis Potter (1935-1994). I mean this literally, for there weren’t even 10 minutes, much less an hour’s grace, between the 2 boxed sets of DVDs. Immediately the first one finished with Michael Henchard’s famous and terrible death note, that he wished to be buried in unconsecrated ground and he wanted everyone to forget about him and never to speak of him, literally as the credits rolled, I walked through to get the Potter DVD, stopped in the kitchen to fill up with wine, then sat down and dived straight into Alan Bates selling his wife and baby at the fair.
You probably remember the plot of Casterbridge from the revision notes for your GCSE, GCE or School Certificate English Literature, depending on your venerability. I will try to precis it for you as briefly as possible, but be aware at the start that like true vintage Hardy it is all about unremitting fate, dismally thwarted hopes and hopelessly tragic dead ends, for it is about a man (it is always a man) who is the bound and trussed victim of his uncontrollable moods and temper. Michael Henchard happens to be a trusser himself, a jobbing hay trusser who to earn his bread walks with his wife Susan and babe in arms Elizabeth Jane from farm to farm in a fictionalised Dorset, somewhere around the 1830s. One day they come to a country fair just above Casterbridge and a remarkably rough old woman, who in her thronging tent sells furmity, a kind of sweet porridge concoction, advises Henchard he can always have a pennorth of rum added to it if he wishes. Despite Susan’s protests he has more and more rum until he is very drunk, and in such an evil mood that he offers to auction his wife and baby to anyone will have them. All the rustics around him laugh at his nonsense but he persists in his obnoxious project and eventually and with Susan’s sad agreement, a kindhearted sailor called Newson buys them off him for 5 guineas.
In the original version it is the veteran Alan Bates (1934-2003) plays Henchard, and in the remake it is the gifted Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds (born 1953) who you might have seen in In Bruges as the priest. Both of them are excellent in the part, Bates with his barking, snapping cadences so that every speech he makes is a kind of rat-a-tat attack, even when he is being that rare thing, an amiable individual. Hinds by contrast has more of a stiff and saturnine aggression and he can also do wonderful things with his facial muscles, show a gloom and epic despondency that are beyond words. Bates’s long-suffering Susan is played by Anne Stallybrass (born 1938) best known from The Onedin Line TV series of the early 70s. She is a capable actress but not a brilliant one, and the same is true of Juliet Aubrey (born 1966) who plays Susan in the remake, and who made her name as Dorothea in the 1994 TV version of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. We see Elizabeth Jane as a baby in the furmity scene, and then we fast forward 21 years when mother and daughter are virtually penniless and Susan is trying to track down Henchard. She meets the old furmity woman who is now two decades older at the same fair and learns that Henchard came back to the tent the day after he had sold her, and told her that if ever Susan should turn up at the fair again, to inform her he had moved to Casterbridge.
Meanwhile Henchard has prospered beyond belief since he did his shameful deed. He is the leading grain merchant in Casterbridge and is also the worshipful mayor, notable for the fact he is a teetotaller, for after selling his wife and child he had gone into a church and vowed 21 years of abstinence for his crime. However, he has his trials, for despite his advancement he has suffered recent criticism because of some bad grain he has unwittingly sold. He is as he puts it, a rule of thumb man, not a scientist, which is why the arrival in Casterbridge of the young Scotsman Donald Farfrae is such a godsend as he has enough science to retrieve the bad grain to saleable seconds. Like many a moody and unstable man Henchard finds that he admires his opposite, the modest and gentle Farfrae, to distraction, and offers him the post of manager and says he can name his price. It is at this point, once we have listened to several dialogue exchanges between this pair, that we realise that the two Farfraes are the weakest thing in both adaptations. In the Potter version we have Jack Galloway who once did jobbing work in TV series like Bergerac and Maigret and here seems well out of his depth. With the surname he has, I’m assuming he is a Scot but his acting is wooden, nervous and without any range or inflection. He is so bad at times, as when Susan craftily arranges a bogus liaison in a barn between Farfrae and her grown daughter Elizabeth Jane, that you feel embarrassed for him, and want to get in there and act instead of him. The Englishman James Purefoy (born 1964) who you might have seen in the cult movie Solomon Kane, is Farfrae to Ciaran Hinds in the remake, and the kindest thing you can say is he is the less bad of the two. His face is more mobile to be sure, but in the scene where he first meets Henchard’s other guilty secret in the form of his rejected lover from the Channel Isles, Lucetta, Purefoy’s mannered flirting and immediate enamourment are done to unconvincing formula.
To elaborate and briskly backtrack. Susan soon makes contact with Henchard in Casterbridge, and at his behest, she tells Elizabeth Jane nothing about his being her father, nor about the time he auctioned his wife and child, but that he is instead a remote relative. As such he discreetly courts Susan and eventually marries her a second time, for the kindly sailor Newson had been lost at sea and hence his wife and daughter’s recent destitution. However, in the intervening 20 bachelor years, on holiday in Jersey, Henchard had met the handsome and respectable Lucetta, she had nursed him through a sudden and unexpected illness, they had become intimate, and he had promised her eventual marriage. Of course, once Susan turns up, without any scruple he writes to her and says that promise cannot now be fulfilled, just as Henchard throughout the film does everything impulsively, often brutally and with seemingly nil capacity for remorse. As a further wind in the coil and typical of Hardy’s ruthlessly pessimistic plotting, Susan is in poor health and shortly after their marriage she dies. Henchard then takes a deep breath and tells Elizabeth Jane that she is his child after all, and not the child of Mr Newson. In the Potter original Elizabeth Jane is played by Janet Maw (born 1954) principally a radio actor, and capable enough, though not particularly distinguished, for she has a kind of Sunday school virtue about her that weakens her dramatic power. Far superior in the remake is Jodie May (born 1975) who really can act, for at the age of 13 no less, in 1988, she won Best Actress at Cannes for her appearance in A World Apart. When Ciaran Hinds bluffly informs her that he is her real father and Newson a phantom, her grief and absolute desolation are infinitely moving. The next Hardy twist is typically cruel, for in fact Susan had left a sealed note for Henchard which disclosed that the original Elizabeth Jane died shortly after they had parted and that the current one named in her memory, is indeed the child of Newson. At once brittle Henchard loses all affection and is supremely irritable, even downright nasty to this maddening girl who is not after all of his blood. Hinds is particularly impressive when he faces Jodie May after reading her mother’s confession, exhibiting a sort of leaden deadness and sullen absence of feeling after his initial excitement at telling her she was his child.
Meanwhile, having heard of Susan’s death, Lucetta thinks it is fine to turn up anonymously in Casterbridge and have the wrong put right. She is crafty enough to befriend Elizabeth Jane and take her into the house she has rented as her housekeeper and companion, so that that will give Henchard an excuse for visiting her, and thus courting and eventually marrying her. As yet another twist, hitherto Farfrae has shown a romantic interest in Elizabeth Jane, even after Henchard had fallen out with him, had sacked him and forbidden their courtship. But once the Scotsman meets Lucetta the pair of them are immediately smitten and before long they marry in secret, so that this is the third grave injury the man of science has done his erstwhile employer. First, he had shamed Henchard in front of his workmen by upbraiding him for humiliating a gormless labourer called Abel Whittle by sending him off to work minus any trousers as punishment for being late to work. Then he had chosen to organise a party to celebrate a royal anniversary whereupon envious and childish Henchard decided that he would organise a better one. It rained a monsoon on the day, but Farfrae had wisely constructed huge tarpaulin tents to keep his guests dry, whereas Henchard’s festivity was a dismal wash out and everyone was soaked. At that point he vauntingly sacks Farfrae in front of his party guests, forbids his courting Elizabeth Jane, then true to volatile form, once he discovers that she is not his daughter and that he cannot now abide her, he curtly informs the Scotsman he may resume the courtship. But soon after Henchard angrily observes Farfrae through a window, flirting with Lucetta when he is supposed to be looking for Elizabeth Jane, and so is witness of this third and massive affront, the imminent stealing of his hoped-for wife. Aside from all else, without the Scotsman’s guiding hand, Henchard’s business is in chronic disarray and he is counting on selling hay at a huge profit but on a severe miscalculation. He promptly loses a fortune, and as it happens Lucetta has just come into a large inheritance, so that he has lost both her and her fortune to his mortal enemy. Henchard in his desperation tries by crude blackmail to force Lucetta into promising marriage and even requests that Elizabeth Jane be there beside them to witness the promise. But Lucetta gets her young companion to tell her father she must go away for a couple of days restorative holiday and instead in secret she marries Farfrae and the two of them return separately to Casterbridge.
Lucetta in the original version was played by Anna Massey (1937-2011) an actor of great distinction who depicted the Jersey woman’s vulnerability and relative innocence with depth and effortless nuance. In the remake she is portrayed by Polly Walker (born 1966 and best known for her role in the 2002 movie Savage Messiah) who is simply nowhere in the same league. This is true not just when it comes to the extremity of Lucetta’s ultimate and terrible public humiliation, but also when she is chatting about ordinary matters with her companion Jodie May, if only because Walker’s cadences are nothing like 1840s cadences and she could be acting in a contemporary chic drama set in central London. I needed to suspend disbelief and see Lucetta as a frail Hardyesque gentlewoman instead of which I kept seeing Polly Walker rehearsing her lines in a Belsize Park flat, with her phone about to beep half way through. That aside, Michael Henchard is incensed to madness by Lucetta’s betrayal and threatens to expose her with all the love letters he has preserved, for of course Farfrae has no idea that she is the Jersey woman his old boss had once talked about in a moment of confidence. Farfrae by now has set up in the grain business himself, and unlike his volatile former boss only ever speculates with infinite caution. Now that Henchard is a shamed bankrupt and has had his property sold off, Farfrae unwillingly inflicts a fourth major injury when he becomes unanimously voted the new mayor. Lucetta in the meanime becomes pregnant and is morbidly anxious that Henchard will disgrace her and begs him to return her compromising love letters. At length even stony Henchard finds he is able to relent and show pity, but foolishly he entrusts the letters to a third party, a devious individual with a grudge called Jopp, the same resentful man who had originally been promised the manager’s job that Henchard had instead given to Farfrae. Though even wily Jopp (played brilliantly by sinister Ronald Lacey in the Potter original) can see that Henchard by now can sink no lower with all the woes that have befallen him. He has lost office as the mayor not only because he was a bankrupt, but because as a magistrate he had been trying an old lady for committing a public nuisance in the town and that old lady turned out to be the furmity seller of 21 years ago. She had named Henchard before all in the court as the same drunken countryman who had once sold his wife and child in her tent, and his disgrace by now is total.
Jopp seeks his ultimate vengeance by bringing out Lucetta’s love letters in the local tavern and reading then aloud to the guffawing and pitiless old men and women. The mob frenzy is merciless at this point and it is a spectacularly vicious old lady who suggests they subject Farfrae’s wife with her shameful past to a skimmity ride, meaning they make caricature effigies of Lucetta and Henchard and drag them along on poles past the Jersey lady’s house, beating pans and shouting and making a terrifying ruckus. When they do this awful pantomime, Lucetta is of course seized with horror and takes an epileptic seizure and eventually loses her baby and dies. In the remake with Polly Walker this kernel and appalling scene is done relatively quickly even cursorily, meaning that the pathos of her needless death and the horror of collective cruelty is more muted than it should be. In the Potter version the skimmity ride is given extended treatment and Anna Massey’s delicate hysterical persona is well suited to emphasise her complete dissolution when the atavistic instincts of cruel rustics decide they wish to utterly destroy her.
This mob cruelty is also paralleled with the individual cruelty or rather heedless selfishness of the ruined Henchard. Rather than starve he is now obliged to take employment from Casterbridge’s leading merchant Farfrae, and he ends up in rough lodgings where the sole blessing in his life is the faithful attendance of Elizabeth Jane, who still believes him to be her father. One day when he is alone in his hovel he is visited by a stranger who introduces himself as a sailor by the name of Richard Newson, who had not after all drowned at sea, but had survived and made his way back to England. He is come looking for his wife Susan and their beloved daughter, and Henchard in a state of shock is able to truthfully tell him of Susan’s death, but horrifyingly he lies and says that Elizabeth Jane is dead too. Newson, not doubting his earnest voice, leaves grief stricken, and Henchard has so to speak bought himself a breathing space in what now feels like his arctic isolation amongst his fellow men. The inevitable progression is that widower Farfrae resumes his courtship with Elizabeth Jane and Henchard realising his approaching Nemesis vanishes from Casterbridge. Newson meanwhile has made further shrewd enquiries and realised that Farfrae’s intended wife was indeed his own daughter and that Henchard had told him a cruel lie. On the day of the wedding Henchard turns up to make some sort of shameful amends and is faced by Elizabeth Jane with the wickedness of his deceit. He retreats stricken to his ultimate death bed where he leaves the famous note saying he wishes that the world will forget all about him and never speak of him again.
These 2 very enjoyable adaptations have one thing in common. They both have a virtuoso lead in the shape of Alan Bates and Ciaran Hinds, both of whose acting and imaginative range are off the scale, but who receive inadequate support from sundry others in the cast. They both have extremely inadequate foils in the humdrum and stumbling actors playing Farfrae, and while the remake has a virtuoso Elizabeth Jane in the form of Jodhi May, it has an unconvincing tragic heroine in Polly Walker, who stays resolutely in the 21st century, and is no match at all for the original Anna Massey. It is in fact possible to have serious literary adaptations where everyone in the cast is excellent and no one is dragging their feet. Witness the peerless 1981 Charles Sturridge version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where everyone was on top form (Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier) and because of which the adaptation will surely endure for ever. But this business of casting a brilliant lead and then hoping for the best with everyone else, has for long been the default mode in British TV drama, and it is a crying shame, it really is.