Hardy on the small screen
Six of Thomas Hardy’s short stories were adapted for televison in the 1970s. Tony Burton-Page regards them as classics of their kind.
Published in November ’16
Even in his own lifetime, Thomas Hardy was such a celebrated literary figure that adaptations of his work were frequent. Many of his novels and short stories were turned into plays; many of his poems were set to music; there was even an operatic version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Balfour Gardiner (the Dorset-based composer of the much-loved ‘Evening Hymn’) planned with Hardy to write an opera based on the short story, ‘The Three Strangers’, although the project never came to fruition. It is ironic that his own vast verse drama, The Dynasts, was, by Hardy’s own admission, unstageable and ‘intended simply for mental performance’, as he put in his preface to the work, although later commentators have suggested that, with its immense range and spectacular vision, it should be regarded as a film script ahead of its time.
After his death, the adaptations continued ever more abundantly. His poetry became accepted as being the work of a master of his craft, and composers of the stature of Gerald Finzi and Benjamin Britten made settings of it. Film versions of the novels appeared with increasing frequency as the 20th century ended, even though, somewhat surprisingly, the first film adaptation was done during Hardy’s lifetime – as early as 1913. The recent version of Far From the Madding Crowd is almost certainly not the last of a long line.
The short stories have received less attention from film-makers, though, and not all the attempts have been entirely successful. There was, however, one which was: the BBC’s 1973 series of six of Hardy’s Wessex Tales, made for television. They are little known for, despite being well received when they were broadcast, they were only shown again once (in 1975) and indeed for many years it was thought that they had suffered the fate of many BBC television classics – that the original videotapes had been ‘wiped’ so that they could be re-used. Fortunately, this was not the case, and the set of six hour-long films re-surfaced on a DVD a few years ago.
They were the brain-child of Irene Shubik, a distinguished BBC drama producer who had made her name with such classics as Edna, the Inebriate Woman, the most celebrated television play of the 1970s, and the television series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’. She had worked in television drama since 1960, and she was the story editor on the first drama series for the newly launched BBC2 in 1964, ‘Story Parade’. Her first production was the classic science fiction anthology, Out of the Unknown. In 1967 she became co-producer of influential and sometimes controversial ‘The Wednesday Play’ (subsequently ‘Play for Today’), working with such writers as Peter Nichols and John Osborne.
In 1973 Christopher Morahan, then BBC Television Head of Plays, asked Shubik if she would be interested in a change from contemporary drama and science fiction. She was more than ready, and Morahan gave her a book of short stories by Hardy. She fell in love with them and the result was a series of six adaptations of stories from Hardy’s collections. She chose three stories from Wessex Tales (‘The Withered Arm’, ‘Fellow-Townsmen’ and ‘An Imaginative Woman’), two from Life’s Little Ironies (‘A Tragedy of Two Ambitions’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’) and one from A Group of Noble Dames (‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’). Shubik found that these stories had a contemporary appeal: ‘He presents them in many dimensions, viewing them with a profoundly ironic and very modern eye. His attitudes to women, religion and class could be those of now. Even in those most melodramatic tales of witchcraft and horror, “The Withered Arm” and “Barbara of the House of Grebe”, no characters behave other than believably in terms of modern psychology.’
It was decided to film each story on location rather than to use television studios, and as this was a more expensive option, extra funding was needed. This came from Time Life, an American company. Fortunately, the 1970s was an era before such companies insisted having a huge influence on any productions in which they had a financial interest, and Shubik was left to her own devices: she later said that she had been given ‘complete freedom … they never appeared until they’d all been made. They saw the scripts, of course, but that was it.’
Shubik’s long-standing involvement with television drama meant that she knew many writers. ‘I phoned round people I thought would be good for those particular stories,’ she said. She chose six very different writers for the six stories: Rhys Adrian, Douglas Livingstone, Dennis Potter, William Trevor, Ken Taylor and David Mercer – with all of whom Shubik had worked on ‘The Wednesday Play’ or ‘Play for Today’. The quality of these writers alone was enough to ensure that Wessex Tales would be a series of an exceptionally high standard; but Shubik’s choice of actors and directors turned it into an instant classic. Among the actors were such established stars as Billie Whitelaw and Claire Bloom, as well as some who were to become stars in the future, such as John Hurt and Ben Kingsley. The directors included Mike Newell, who went on to direct Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The first of the series to be broadcast (on 7 November 1973) was ‘The Withered Arm’, which starred Billie Whitelaw, who had already made her mark in the theatrical world as Samuel Beckett’s muse. It also featured a young Edward Hardwicke, who was subsequently to co-star with Jeremy Brett as Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes in the long-running Granada television series. The story centres on a scorned ex-wife whose jealous loathing of her successor brings about, apparently supernaturally, a physical deterioration in her rival. Although the story is set in ‘Holmstoke’ (East Holme in Hardy-ese), much of this episode was filmed in or around Bettiscombe.
‘Fellow-Townsmen’ was the second instalment. Set in Port Bredy (Bridport), it is a typically Hardyesque story of a loveless marriage, in which the husband (Kenneth Haigh, already well-known for his portrayal of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) finally manages to rid himself of his wife only to find that his heart’s desire (Jane Asher, a ’sixties sex-symbol) has attached herself to another the very same day.
The third of the tales was ‘A Tragedy of Two Ambitions’, an adaptation by Dennis Potter, who had already made a name for himself with Casanova for the BBC and subsequently provided them with The Singing Detective, as well as his famous adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. This short story concerns two young brothers who are aiming to achieve high status in the church but are continually frustrated by their embarrassing father, resolutely bucolic and regularly drunk. The tale ends tragi-comically with the inebriated father falling into a river and drowning while his two steadfastly religious sons look on. The brothers are played by John Hurt, yet to hit cinema screens with Alien and The Elephant Man, and David Troughton, who has featured in Survivors and Rab C Nesbit and is also the new Tony Archer on The Archers (in which he plays opposite his real-life son, William, who now plays Tom Archer).
The next in the sequence was William Trevor’s adaptation of ‘An Imaginative Woman’, another story centring on a loveless marriage. This time the wife falls for the occupant of the lodgings which she and her husband are using for their family holiday – the twist being that she never meets the occupant but only reads his poetry and communicates under a pen-name, which leads him to commit suicide because of this unattainable love. The wife was played by another ’sixties beauty, Claire Bloom, and her husband by television regular Norman Rodway. This episode was directed by Gavin Millar, who went on to even greater things with Dreamchild, Dennis Potter’s story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice as an old lady.
The fifth tale was ‘The Melancholy Hussar’, directed by Mike Newell. Again, it is a story of unattainable love: a young girl falls for a German soldier whose battalion is encamped just beyond her house on Bincombe Down, near Weymouth. His plan to elope with her fails and he is shot for desertion. The soldier was played by Ben Cross, who became a major star in 1981 as Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire.
The final episode was ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’, which starred a young Ben Kingsley – ten years before Gandhi and 27 before Sexy Beast, but instantly recognisable. Once again there is a loveless marriage in the story, although in this case it is the wife’s second attempt, the first having ended with the husband’s death after a terrible accident. Kingsley played the sadistic second husband who tries to terrorise his wife into loving him – which inevitably ends in disaster.
Small wonder that the American Time Life managers’ verdict on the series was: ‘Masterpieces, but it wasn’t a laugh a minute’. Irene Shubik apologised to her American bosses, explaining: ‘That was the way Hardy wrote, but I wanted to get the feel of that.’ There can be no doubt that she achieved her aim.