This is the first in a series Quite Irregular is running on adaptations. It’ll hopefully include pieces on particular works and their adaptations, on how we consume adaptations of works we already love, and the various ways of approaching the idea of adaptation itself. If you’d like to write a post for the series, please get in touch. This post is by Dr. Caitlin McDonald, author of ‘Global Moves:Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World’. Caitlin blogs at http://www.caitlinmcdonald.com/ and can be found on twitter @caitiewrites
I believe there are three series, all produced for ITV in the late 80s and early 90s, that could be considered the definitive television adaptations of their respective originals. They are the exalted series of Jeeves and Wooster, Sherlock Holmes, and Poirot, all produced for ITV in the late 80s and early 90s. (I initially thought they were all produced by Granada Television for ITV, but it turns out that dear old Poirot was actually produced by LWT. We shall soldier on nonetheless.)
Why am I drawn to these above all other adaptions? To examine this, I must leave aside the merits of the stories themselves and focus on the qualities that distinguish these particular adaptations from other adapted works. Please don’t interpret this as my being blind to the wonders of narrative, I’m just looking at why these particular versions are so striking.
First, each series is replete with characters who have those marvellous accents where all the vowels sound as though they are being rationed. You can’t move without tripping over somebody who vocally approximates a radio announcer from the War. I know, I know, there are plenty of other television series and films where this is also true. But this is the initial element which acts as a very strong conduit to channel us into the respective eras in which they were set.
Secondly, you know how sometimes images of the past show us much more about the decade in which they were produced than the one they’re supposed to represent? Well, these weren’t like that. They were each scrupulously adherent to the visual cues of the eras in which they were set. This goes no small way in firmly establishing an alternative universe into which we, the harried viewing public, can escape.
These cues were given in many very subtle ways, making the best possible use of establishing shots and the actions of minor characters who in less well thought out productions are wont to float aimlessly around in the background when not speaking. Recall how, whenever Bertie errantly stumbles into Jeeves’s domain, Jeeves (who is impeccably yet practically attired, naturally) is constantly polishing something, or ironing, or tidying. And of course the kinds of objects he’s handling are all not only of the period, but of the specific social position befitting Bertie’s household in that period. These are the kinds of activities and items that aren’t mentioned in Wodehouse’s original stories unless doing so would forward the plot (to wit, the silver cow creamer), so to bring this to screen life somebody had to sit there and think about the best way to show Jeeves working without it being glaringly obvious that they were Showing Us Jeeves Working. The same is true of the other two series: those establishing shots of Poirot’s apartment building go no small way toward continually reinscribing our relationship with the 1930s, and every one or two second shot of Holmes’s Irregulars, or street harlots with shawls, or Hackney carriages or vegetable carts or steam engines or people with raveled fingerless gloves, carries us right back to fin de siècle London. Paired with the above, in which the characters all actually SOUND like they belong in that era, and they’re certainly all dressed very carefully to look like they belong in that era, what disbelief can we possibly have left to suspend?
With all of that in mind, it can come as no surprise that for me these three series have in a very big way defined my concepts of what Britishness means, and certainly how it looks and sounds. Yes, the original writings on which each series were based also does this, and there is a joy in the written language of the originals that can never be reinscribed to a new medium. But it works the other way as well: no matter how precisely Christie explains Poirot’s exacting fussiness of temperament and dress, nothing could embody it so succinctly as David Suchet’s superb little lapel vase. Though I consider Wodehouse’s writing to be sublime, it does not nor cannot contain the mirthful sight of Hugh Laurie singing ‘Forty-Seven Ginger Headed Sailors’ to a small and very confused dog. And I can’t read Doyle’s description of the rooms at 221B Baker Street without seeing in my mind’s eye the set put to such good use by Jeremy Brett and David Burke. The adaptations themselves, not just the originals, have fleshed out the Pinterest board in my head titled ‘Britishness’.
Each of these three series reinforces the romantic notion of a Britain steeped in its past precisely because they are adaptations, and such modern ones at that. With their writings Doyle, Wodehouse and Christie were just describing versions of their own contemporaneous world–probably stylised and fictionalised versions of what was around them, but still containing just the ordinary objects and settings that existed in their own times. To create a series that refers to the past, however, is a choice that suggests that there are certain types of meaning that cannot be found in narratives of the contemporary–or perhaps meanings that cannot be expressed in contemporary settings. Meanings that are concentrated by wrapping them in the garments of the past.
I suggest that in the case of these three particular series, one aspect of Britishness that is easier to express is a less romantic undercurrent that these images of life in former times offer: a past where class is an immediate and obvious force in everyone’s lives. This is sometimes presented as a positive force, sometimes a negative one, but in all cases as a condition that is nearly immutable. The appeal of escaping to these fictional worlds is not just a longing for days when everything was just a little more decorous, everyone was just a little more refined–because the reality was far from that of course, something that is glimpsed in the Other People who are always hovering around the edges of those stories. Holmes’s Irregulars. The various bumbling policemen and communists and jewel thieves on the fringes of Bertie’s glittering little world. All those maids and nurses and gamekeepers in Poirot, people who had very little self-determination because of their economic circumstances. The longing for the worlds in these series is a longing also to be one of those whose life is eased by social standing and wealth. For in these series, the plots all revolve around the comfortably well-off. I mean, nobody daydreaming about a life in one of these series wants to be Constable Oates. Let us all be members of the Drones! This desire is permissable when looking at the past, where That Was Just How It Was Back Then, but to express a earnest desire for conspicuous consumption now, to express a want to be one of the gluttonous few who actually still have servants and personally tailored clothing and monocles and all that sort of thing is definitely Not Allowed Anymore (certainly not among my set of friends. There are probably groups of young bankers and other persons who think differently.)
Though perhaps the appeal is not only in a longing for that which we cannot have and which is inegalitarian to desire. Perhaps it is also in the ability to reinforce our satisfaction that things are no longer that way by peeping in briefly for a time at a world that was well-ordered, well-tailored, and well-spoken, and despite all of that, in which we are very glad we do not personally live.
But I’m always for a sing-song of the old ‘Forty Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors.’ Care to join me?