Another autumn, another big, expensive and much-hyped period drama series… occasionally a reviewer can feel a little jaded at the endless parade of “heritage TV” English Lit adaptations and sub-Downton costume sagas.
So it’s a relief to report that Vanity Fair isn’t afraid to have a little fun with the formula. The opening – a breathy, ethereal voice singing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as a top-hatted figure set a carousel ride in motion with a snap of their fingers – was an early indication that this might be a bit more quirky and less reverential than the standard “bonnets and breeches” trudge.
The ringmaster was Michael Palin, exuding his typical blend of avuncularity and mischief as William Makepeace Thackeray. He was perfect casting as the author whose 1847 masterpiece subtly satirised the novelistic conventions of the time and still seems remarkably modern, with a central theme that love and other fine feelings are all very well as long as you can afford them.
Its spirit is embodied by Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke, star of Ready Player One), introduced effortlessly besting the prim headmistress (Suranne Jones) of a not-quite-top-drawer ladies’ finishing school. The daughter of “an artist and an opera girl”, Becky has neither money nor station but is determined to use her beauty and brains to make up for it.
Nowadays she’d be a Love Island contestant or a YouTube vlogger with plenty of “sponsored content” on her site. But in the Regency era of the novel she has to make do with latching on to good-hearted school chum Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie) and inviting herself back to the London abode of her stockbroker Papa (Simon Russell Beale, looking like a Gillray cartoon brought to life).
‘Nowadays she’d be a Love Island contestant’
She sets her cap at Amelia’s brother Jos (David Fynn, a long way from School of Rock) a portly oaf on leave from the East India Company with only wealth to recommend him. But fate intervenes in the shape of Charlie Rowe as Amelia’s handsome but worldly fiancé Captain George Osborne (insert own joke here), who warns him off. Reduced to becoming a governess in the eccentric household of Martin Clunes’ rural MP Sir Pitt Crawley, Becky shrugs and starts eyeing up his handsome son…
The central characters play out an intricate gavotte against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars (Photo: Mammoth Screen/ITV)Those familiar with the novel will know that over the next six episodes this core group of characters will play out an intricate gavotte as the Napoleonic Wars reach their height. It’s a novel that combines the subtle wit of Jane Austen with a broad social canvas peopled by a host of memorable characters to rival Dickens, and adaptor Gwyneth Hughes has captured its essence nicely.
The production values are lavish (illustrated in the opener’s climactic outing to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens). The performances are excellent. And the music by Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Fleabag’s Phoebe) made good use of period songs to bring out the source material’s folk ballad qualities.
‘There wasn’t too much revisionist finger-wagging’
Best of all, there wasn’t too much revisionist finger-wagging. A single glance from the Sedleys’ black servant Sam (Richie Campbell) as Papa opined that Jos marrying Becky would at least avoid any “mahogany grandchildren” was more telling than any heavy-handed aside on the social iniquities of 19th-century Britain; Sam is also one of the few characters who sees through Becky from the start.
Michael Palin was an avuncular but mischievous presence as Thackeray, satirically observing his creations (Photo: Mammoth Screen/ITV)A few more satiric interventions by Palin/Thackeray would be welcome and it all looks slightly too clean for an era where the gentry bathed every three months, whether they needed to or not. But this is a nicely playful and earthy take on one of the great English novels. Pour yourself a glass of fine claret (or better still, get a servant/besotted admirer to do it for you) and enjoy.
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