Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

by Mark Wallace

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

The introduction of Fagin:

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.

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Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.

 

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