Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: The Casual Vacancy on BBC One

I’ve just caught up with BBC One’s latest 3-part drama, The Casual Vacancy. It’s actually the first time I’ve watched TV—or at least a permutation thereof—in a while, as we don’t have a TV in our flat here at Uni. So today, I opted to spend my Sunday morning watching the hour-long drama on BBC iPlayer, and it really reminded me why I love sinking my teeth into a story on the small screen and losing myself for a while. Something about being in bed with a cup of tea and pretending I didn’t have any work to do made the experience all the more delicious.

I read the novel by J.K. Rowling over the summer and, as you can tell by my review, was a huge fan of it. You’ll also notice I was both excited and a little sceptical to see how it would translate on screen. Overall, I think it was really suited to a 9pm Sunday night drama on BBC One (placed just after Call the Midwife), portraying the classic idyllic English town where not everything is a perfect as it seems.

It’s always dangerous watching something you’ve already read, especially when it’s written by such a masterfully descriptive author, because the reader can often have a very fixed idea of what the characters and settings are “supposed to” look like. Most characters had only a vague resemblance to what I’d imagined. Michael Gambon would—he will be pleased to know—have to put on several stone before he really resembled the character of Howard Mollison. However, while appearances of course differed from my fussy, fixed internal images, the characters were brought to life in a delightful manner. In fact, a huge exception to my initial qualms were Samantha and Miles Mollison, who were just as contrasting and unbalanced a couple as I’d imagined. Samantha’s general vibe of disillusionment and irritation came across incredibly well onscreen, while Miles was the perfect spineless husband who makes one want to shout at him to… well, shout occasionally himself. The massive photo of Samantha’s mother-in-law with the two grandchildren that loomed over the couple in one scene in their kitchen pretty much summarised the dynamics of what I found to be one of the more interesting relationships in the book.

That is, after all, what the entire story centres around as much as anything else: relationships, and in particular marriage and family life. I felt these were incredibly well portrayed: the reactions of wives to their husbands and vice versa, for example the arguably abusive relationship between Ruth and Simon Price, as well as the dysfunctional, unbalanced marriage of the Walls. Ruth Price, played by Marie Critchley, appears visibly shrunken in front of her violent, aggressive husband. Meanwhile, Tessa Wall is seen as an incredibly timid and weak character, frightened of husband Colin’s stressful nature, but she still seems in a higher position at times as it is also her role to comfort an protect him from the harsh realities of life, which appear in the TV series to be triggering trichotillomania. “They’re probably doing ‘wanker’ at me,” she assures him of his pupils and says he retains “natural authority”—lying through her teeth like the loving wife she must be.

A huge change in the story, one which I took in my stride and really appreciated, was the emphasis on Barry Fairbrother’s character. The novel begins with Fairbrother’s own death, and proceeds to illustrate his character through a series of flashbacks. However, screenwriter Sarah Phelps has opted in her adaptation to show a day in Barry’s life and make his death a part, not the beginning, of the story. This was a clever way of allowing us a glimpse into Barry’s life without the need to do so from multiple perspectives—instead, we are shown from Barry’s own perspective the ways in which he is the linking feature of all the residents of Pagford.

Contrast is a huge feature in The Casual Vacancy. One of the opening scenes, after establishing shots of a church spire emerging from almost artificially green trees and the like, portrays heroin addict Terri Weedon being driven by Barry through an idyllic town. Her scarred arms, dirty hair and clothes and gaunt appearance stand out starkly against the quaint, middle class English village. Another striking image is that of teenage “Fats” Wall, smoking cannabis out of his bedroom window as he looks out on dark streets of traditional cobbled perfection.

I could say a lot more about Krystal Weedon, who has been portrayed as the “main” character if one were to choose one. She isn’t at all like I would have imagined but her bravery and frustration are captured with alarming skill from such a young actress as Abigail Lawrie. It is her story we will all follow as the drama continues and concludes.

Overall, I find the story to have been translated onto screen with alarming skill and perfection. A cast of well-known and newer actors have captured the interesting dynamics the book portrayed and the screenwriter has remained true to the original plot while also changing certain aspects to suit television.

The BBC strikes again, and reminds me what I love about television. I would definitely recommend tuning in tonight at 9pm!  

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