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TV review: Vanity Fair, Press, and Wanderlust

14 September 2018


In Vanity Fair (ITV, Sundays), Becky Sharp (centre) elbows her way upwards through Regency society

In Vanity Fair (ITV, Sundays), Becky Sharp (centre) elbows her way upwards through Regency society

WHY bother to prepare a sermon for Sunday evensong? Surely Thackeray’s great morality tale of Vanity Fair, now translated to the small screen by courtesy of ITV (Sundays), will sober up our congregations in preparation for the working week?

Becky Sharp elbows her way upwards through Regency society, her utter lack of scruple and honour applauded by the author as entirely reasonable ploys for a poor girl to secure a competence in an uncaring world — in other words, society is more skewered and immoral than Becky herself.

It is more subtle than that, of course: all through the story, people show her genuine affection and generosity, only to be tossed aside when they no longer serve her purpose. The work should draw us in, constantly wrong-footing our expectations of how heroes and heroines should behave, and what behaviour will be rewarded and what will be punished by a just fate. Our condemnation of Becky should be undercut by reluctant admiration for her sheer energy, resource, and determination.

I think it a really good if flawed novel: a remarkable mixture of cynical entertainment and unmasking of hypocrisies. But, so far, this adaptation does not live up to the original: it has nothing of the essential barb and velocity, it is played too much as farce, and it is undermined by awful new dialogue.

BBC1’s new newspaper drama series Press (Thursday evenings) offers us a far more convincing anti-hero. A vulpine editor of a brash tabloid, Duncan Allen, is pitted against Holly Evans, of a high-minded left-leaning broadsheet. Holly’s paper has all the virtue, but is dull and slow; Duncan’s scurrilous rag is shocking, immoral, attention-grabbing — but effective, and com­pelling.

Duncan himself a brilliant mon­ster, quick-witted, perfectly willing to wreck a politician’s career or destroy grieving parents’ ignorance about their son’s sexuality. Yet he is also capable of quixotic acts of generosity, and might be genuinely committed to uncovering the truth, whatever damage that might wreak on others. He could develop into a really interesting creation, confounding our moral expectations.

The characters in Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesdays) — yet another new high-end drama series — lead lives of middle-class comfort, yet derive no satisfaction from them. Marital relations between a therapist, Joy, and a teacher, Alan, are mutually unsatisfying — indeed, the whole drama could be seen as an exposition of bourgeois impotence, both metaphorical and literal.

Both indulge in brief infidelities, and, by the end of episode one, have agreed that they will give each other the freedom of playing away in the hope of saving their marriage. I might care more about this unpromising exposition of life in 21st-century Britain if Alan wasn’t such an ineffectual weed, entirely unworthy of his splendid, witty, and charismatic wife.

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