About every ten years an adaptation of VANITY FAIR seems to come along- 1967, 1987, 1998. This latest adaptation is from the producers of Poldark and Victoria.
Far from being your usual cosy Sunday costume drama, Vanity Fair is a satire - as Michael Palin’s narrator Thackeray (the novel’s author) says, ‘a world where everyone strives for what is not worth having’. It’s no coincidence that William Thackeray subtitled the novel ‘A Novel without a Hero’.
The statement is modern in itself but just to hammer it home, the theme tune is a cover of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by some breathy female artist - just in case you haven’t had enough of these from TV adverts.
Isobel Waller-Bridge's (sister of Phoebe, creator of BBC 3 comedy Fleabag) score overeggs the pudding and feels like that obnoxious person that wants to talk over the programme as you watch it to provide stupidly obvious commentary.
Luckily, the music is the adaptation’s most major flaw and what remains is a watchable, if not stellar, version of the classic novel.
Orphan Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) leaves the awful Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls, defiantly chucking the dictionary given to her out the carriage window as she leaves school behind and makes her way in the world using her wit and charm.
In Episode 1, we see her go to live with her rich friend Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), who is the complete opposite of Becky. Becky sets her sights on Amelia’s obnoxious brother Jos (David Fynn, suitably embarrassing) whose money is his only attractive feature but she’s soon packed off to Hampshire to be a governess for the youngest children of Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), a man who does indeed make your skin crawl.
Cooke is more of a sullen teenager, the sort who would sit at the back of the class and chew gum, rather than a sparkling charmer - but she does capture Becky’s ambition to better her place in society.
Jessie’s version of Amelia is more patronising and lacking self-awareness than other portrayals, which automatically makes you side with Becky - despite the fact that the secondary plot is a love triangle between Amelia, smug fiancé George Osborne (Tom Bateman, not a patch on Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ pretty boy portrayal in the 2004 film) and silently devoted Dobbin (Johnny Flynn). From the glimpse we see of him, Flynn does justice to the only truly nice character.
It’s a colourful raucous novel and the adaptation does acknowledge this with a spectacular night out at Vauxhall pleasure gardens. It just lacks bite, unwilling to completely break with bonnets and britches.
- Watched on ITV1. 02/09/2018