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Episode 315

Great Books that Made Great TV

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Posted by Mary Ann

Sometimes people tell me I have a really cool job, and I smile, and nod, and try not to dwell on how overworked and underpaid I am. But you know what? I have to say that I think Rebecca Eaton has a REALLY cool job. Not so much all the rubbing shoulders she gets to do with the world’s finest actors, but how she has brought some of the world’s finest literature to the screen, which has benefited (in my opinion) literally millions of people.

She came by this love of literature (mostly English literature) honestly; she was an English major in college and left America the first chance she got to work in Britain for the BBC. That fired up her love affair with all things English, and we are the beneficiaries.

Literally dozens of books have been adapted for “Masterpiece” programs. I want to mention a couple folks may not have heard of, and a few of my favorites.

But first I want to natter on about the great Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey.” What a writer this guy is! Sometimes we forget that the beginning of a great television program is a great writer, but Fellowes is that person.

He came from a relatively privileged background – he was the son of a career British diplomat – so he knows the upper crust very, very well. But he has worked hard as an actor and a writer all his life. He has written two novels under his own name; he also wrote several romance novels under the name Rebecca Greville. That was in the hard times; today, he doesn’t have to crank out romance novels under a pen name. Based on the success of “Downton Abbey,” Fellowes now sits in the House of Lords.

Most “Downton Abbey” fans know that Fellowes won an Oscar for best screenplay for the great English country house movie “Gosford Park.” Not so many people know about his novels, so here goes.

Two of his novels that address English class differences, which are at the heart of “Downton Abbey’s” upstairs-downstairs appeal, are his 2004 novel “Snobs” and his 2009 book “Past Imperfect.”

“Snobs” is about a middle class young British woman who would like very much to be upper class, so she makes a run at it through that time-honored technique – marrying a wealthy man. This sets up a story with Fellowes’ exceedingly acute eye for class differences. In this telling, even the traditional rich can’t really afford to be rich anymore, because everything has become so danged expensive. The upper-class matriarch in this book is one Lady Uckfield, otherwise known as “Googie.” The lady thinks that everything was great before 1914; afterwards, not so much. One review called “Snobs” “a field guide to the behavior of the English aristocracy.”

“Past Imperfect” is a juicy story about a British gentleman who late in life decides he has 500 million pounds to give away. (Early in his life he was a nobody, but becoming a software tycoon has turned him into a distinct somebody). Sometime in the 1970s, “The Age of Aquarius,” he fathered a child, or so he is told by an anonymous posting. The narrator, a novelist with whom Damian (the rich fellow) has been estranged, agrees to find that child, and sets off in pursuit of Damian’s old girlfriends. This neatly sets up a story that compares the old money of Britain thirty or forty (or more) years ago and the new money of today’s Britain. I’m not going to tell you which Fellowes prefers, but if you read it you can probably figure it out.

The other great “writer behind the screen” I want to mention, who gets prominent play in Rebecca Eaton’s book and was mentioned by her, is Andrew Davies, who has adapted countless Masterpiece Theater classics, moving them masterfully (sorry!) from books to the screen.

Davies is the man behind one of my favorite “Masterpiece Classics” ever – his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.”

“Bleak House” is one of Dickens’ toughest novels, and Davies just nailed it. It was underwritten by both WBGH, Eaton’s employer, and the BBC; it is a dark story of privation and buried secrets, and features Gillian Anderson of the “X-Files” as the haunted Lady Dedlock. It’s a dark story – front and center is the English legal system. There’s the case of a contested will – “Jarndyce vs. Jardyce” – that ends up benefiting nobody, but nobody, but the lawyers. The English reading public was so shocked by “Bleak House” that it actually led to some legal reform.

Davies writes in a way that, even if you have read a book a half dozen times, you are still hanging onto your armchair, waiting to see what happens next. Another beneficial side effect of Davies’ wonderful Dickens adaptations is that you will feel impelled to read the book,, which is exactly what I went and did after seeing “Bleak House.”

Another wonderful Andrew Davies adaptation was his screenplay of “Middlemarch,” the great George Eliot novel about a young Englishwoman, Dorothea March, struggling to find herself and a good life. Like so many 19th century women, she tries to solve her problems by marrying the wrong man, a cold-fish clergyman. Another brilliant adaptation. It also launched the career of Rufus Sewell, one of the dishiest English actors on the planet, who played Dorothea’s true love, Will Ladislaw. Talk about frustrated passion! It’s a wonderful story. You can’t miss with either the series or the book.

Finally, lest you think I am rummaging around too much in the cupboards of the past……Andrew Davies also wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Selfridge,” which has aired on “Masterpiece” within the past year. It, too, was based on a book, Lindy Woodhead’s biography “Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge.” He wrote the UK version of “House of Cards,” which was better than the U.S. version, in my opinion. And two of my all-time favorite adaptations, a series based on Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” and Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” but I have already talked about those. The guy is busy! We are the beneficiaries.

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