21 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 41


Throwing the book

Wendy Cope

Last week I sneered at Jonathan Ross for saying that the designer of a bad set should be taken out and publicly dis- embowelled. It will become me, therefore, to be moderate as I consider the following question: what should be done with televi- sion people who think it clever, to mess around with the work of Jane Austen? Should we put them in stocks outside the Television Centre and hurl copies of Northanger Abbey at their fatuous heads? Perish the thought; I will go no further than to suggest that everyone concerned with last Sunday's appalling production on BBC2 should be barred from having any- thing to do with adaptations until they have provided evidence of their ability to appreciate a good book.

On second thoughts I will not even go that far because the person in charge of casting had one or two good ideas Robert Hardy as General Tilney, for ex- ample, and Katharine Schlesinger as the heroine, Catherine Morland. Peter Firth as Henry Tilney did not look quite right — he Is supposed to be 'rather tall' and to have `rather dark hair' — but there was some- thing of Henry's intelligence and wit about his performance. This was quite an achievement in view of the fact that little of Austen's intelligence and wit was allowed into Maggie Wadey's script.

Admittedly, many of the best gems in Northanger Abbey are the author's asides, difficult, perhaps, to absorb into a drama- tisation. I can't resist quoting some. On falling in love: 'It must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her.' On clothes: `Man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar affection towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet.' On the prejudice against readers of novels: 'Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name.'

The compression of the novel into a one and a half hour film inevitably meant that some good things would have to be left out. It is harder to forgive the scriptwriter and the director for the things that were put in — the extra characters, the altered dialogue, little changes in the plot. In one of the Bath scenes, all the participants were up to their necks in water. In a later scene, at the abbey, a black page-boy appeared, took Catherine gently by the hand and led her out into the garden, where he proceeded to entertain her by doing cartwheels. It was charming but it had nothing to do with Jane Austen's book. Still, as I kept reminding myself, it could have been worse. They could have had a whole visiting circus turn up at the Tilney residence, complete with tightropes to fix to the towers and sinister-looking white-faced clowns. And they could, I suppose, have found some even worse music to put on the soundtrack, although this is fairly hard to imagine.

The production was conceived as a spoof horror film, so we were subjected to spoof-horror-film music nearly all the way through. One problem with this kind of thing is that the makers of commercials have been doing it for years. Time and again I found myself thinking about advertisements. In the really heavy Gothic episodes I half expected to be warned that it was safer to use a condom. During the film's quieter moments I thought of choco- late bars, bottles of moisturiser, cold cures and bedtime drinks. When Henry arrived at Catherine's house for the final passion- ate clinch (which took place amidst swirl- ing smoke) I would not have been sur- prised to see him present her with a box of Milk Tray or Black Magic.

It was all a great disappointment. In the past I have been favourably impressed by television adaptations of the work of my favourite author. I just hope they won't do anything as dreadful as this again.