I’ve never been one of those people who have been remotely tempted to ‘tackle’ any of the great classics – those 19th century works of literature that come in inch-thick doorstopper editions capable of causing subsidence to the average bedside table. It’s true that many people do see this activity as some sort of lifetime milestone that has to be undertaken at some point, the sedentary equivalent of running a marathon or climbing Everest; they grit their teeth, put their head down and plan their campaign as if going off to battle.
I am not one of those people. Frankly if a book doesn’t appeal to me intrinsically as something that I actually want to read and would enjoy doing so then nothing and no one is going to persuade me otherwise, and I shall be moving quickly on. After all there are a lot of excellent modern books out there that do appeal to me that I also have yet to get around to, so I’m simply not going to squander my short time on this planet on something that people tell me that I should read just so that I can boast about the alleged achievement. I’m perfectly happy to leave that to others who really do enjoy doing such things.
The idea of a 1,225-page tome about the lives and loves of the old Russian aristocracy with unpronounceable names in 1805 simply holds no such inherent appeal. Accordingly the task of reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is so far down my to-do list that I would need two or three lifetimes for it to make it to the top of the pile. While watching a TV adaptation of the novel is a distinctly less challenging prospect – the latest BBC adaptation only requires one’s attention for a relatively scant six hours in total – I’m afraid that my ambivalence toward the novel quickly spilled over to a firm resistance toward embarking upon the small screen version as well. Only the slightest nagging sense of intellectual obligation – that I really should at least give something a chance before completely dismissing it – made me think that I had to sample a few minutes of the first episode to see how far I could actually get before gratefully throwing in the towel and moving on.
As it turned out, it was almost possible to entirely forget about the original novel and its classic, epic status within the literary world. When it comes to the BBC’s 2016 version you can simply admire an awesome piece of television production in its own right, on a scale you rarely ever get to see. Even the makers of Game of Thrones will likely look upon this and nod appreciatively, before taking notes and concluding that maybe it’s time to raise their game once more for their next season.
Filmed on location in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania, everything on screen simply dazzles – from authentic Tsarist-era palaces and ballrooms to large scale battle scenes that put the viewer right in the thick of front line action. The production design and costumes are almost as spectacular as the settings and the action, and overall you could get considerable enjoyment watching the first episode even with the sound (or at least the dialogue) turned right down even with no attempt to actually try to follow the plot, such is the achievement of director Tom Harper, cinematographer George Steel, editor Mark Eckersley and the rest of the accomplished behind-the-scenes team that includes composer Martin Phipps who artfully blends classic Russian themes and songs with modern pulsing undertones to fascinating effect.
But if you did that then you’d miss out on superlative work from an all-star cast every one of which has unquestionably brought their ‘A’ game to the project. Back in the 1970s you’d have needed to go and see one of those big name ensemble disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure or Airport or Murder On The Orient Express to see a cast of this calibre, but now it conveniently comes in one easy-to-use package direct to your Sunday evening television screens. There are international movie stars like Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Gretta Scacchi, together with a raft of familiar faces from British television such as Stephen Rea, Rebecca Front, Adrian Edmondson and Tom Burke, and then all the new up-and-coming stars of tomorrow that include Grantchester’s James Norton, Lily James, Tuppence Middleton, Jack Lowden and Aneurin Barnard. Without exception they all give accomplished and impeccable performances of near-infinite subtlety and depth to bring their characters vividly to modern day life even across two centuries.
However when it comes down to it, underneath all the obvious surface sheen a television drama is still ultimately only as good as its adaptor. In this case the man holding the pen (or tapping away at the keyboard) is Andrew Davies, who is probably one of if not the greatest writer of television drama of the last four decades anywhere in the world. Think that’s exaggerating a little? A little resumé for you in that case: his first full-length serial for the BBC was an adaptation of RF Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, a series I still consider one of my favourite television shows from the 1980s and which I have on DVD and continue to rewatch to this day. He then created the comedy-drama series A Very Peculiar Practice which starred former Doctor Who Peter Davison working in a surreal university health centre, before then largely turning his attention to producing adaptations of classic works of literature. These soon proved to be the highlight of the BBC’s season in whatever year they aired, from Middlemarch (1994) to Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth (1995), then Vanity Fair (1998), Bleak House (2005) and both Little Dorrit and Sense and Sensibility in 2008. On the big screen he wrote 2001’s The Tailor of Panama, collaborated on both Bridget Jones’s Diary films, and penned the 2008 film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
It hasn’t only been adaptations of acknowledged classics though. Most recently he created the original series Mr Selfridge for ITV, but probably most famously his name will always be most strongly linked with the original BBC drama House of Cards that starred the sublime Ian Richardson as scheming politician Francis Urquhart. It controversially took many liberties with former Conservative party chief of staff Michael Dobbs’ original novel that nominally inspired it, and it’s the approach and style that Davies brought to the project that is what most closely inspired and influenced the recent Netflix version starring Kevin Spacey.
Past credits are one thing, but a writer is really only as good as his most recent project. What is most startling and evident about the first episode of the new BBC War and Peace is quite how successfully Davies brings every bit of his craft and past experience to bear on Tolstoy’s sprawling, untidy and uncompromisingly complex novel in order to produce something that is so light and delicate and subtle that it floats in the air like fine silk. Far from being any sort of challenge or drudge or duty to sit through, the first episode couldn’t be a smoother or more pleasant viewing sensation as Davies takes us gently by the hand and guides us into this unfamiliar world with the easy grace of the most accomplished society host.
The first half of the opening episode concentrates mainly on the character of Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), the illegitimate son of a wealthy Russian count. Ungainly and awkward, not to mention expounding sympathy with revolutionary anti-Tsarist radicals, he’s a complete misfit in Russian high society. When his father dies he doesn’t expect to inherit anything at all, and indeed he almost misses out thanks to the scheming of Prince Kuragin (Rea) who wants the count’s daughter Catiche (Fenella Woolgar) to inherit so that he himself can continue to control the estate, but the busybody intervention of distant relative Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya (Front) reveals the old count’s true will and means Pierre suddenly has a grand title and the fortune to go with it. That puts him in the sights of society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Anderson in dazzling form once again) who conspires with Kuragin to ambush Pierre into an engagement with Kuragin’s daughter Helene (Middleton), who by the way is already far too romantically close for comfort with her own hedonistic brother Anatole (Callum Turner).
At some point – the transition is achieved so beautifully that you barely notice the change in focus until long after its happened – we shift our attention to the handsome and dashing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), a man literally bored to death by the stifling atmosphere of aristocratic life in the courts of St Petersburg. He is also trapped in a marriage with the pregnant Lise (Kate Phillips) whom he clearly can no longer stand, even as she clings ever more neurotically to him. Andrei’s only way out is to enlist with the army heading off to face the invading French forces led by Napoleon, so after a truly touchingly-played farewell scene with his father (Broadbent), Andrei gets a post as aide-de-camp to the Russian commander General Mikhail Kutuzov (Cox). However things soon turn grim for the home team, and Andrei ends up volunteering for what is in effect a suicide mission in order to finally accomplish his own personal death wish. Meanwhile his contemporary, the young Prince Nikolai Rostov (Lowden), has already had his own first taste of combat – and any illusions that he might have had of heroism and glory are quickly expunged as he finds himself terrified and alone in the battlefield mud after his horse is shot out from under him within minutes of the first charge on the French, in what is a viscerally thrilling bravura sequence of action filmmaking.
That Davies has managed to steer such a clear and easy-to-follow path through the tangled undergrowth of the original novel is little short of miraculous. Ardent fans of Tolstoy will doubtless not be happy with the many liberties that Davies has surely taken with the original story in the process (for obvious reasons, I can’t comment on this aspect) but that can’t be helped. Even if that is the case, I really do think that film and television schools could and should use his War and Peace (and much of the rest of Davies’ output over the last four decades) to show to the next generation of screen writers exactly how to do it and thereby also inspire them to similar greatness in their own careers. As with all triumphs of the craft, Davies makes it look so easy that you almost take what he does for granted, but there are any number of laboured, heavy-handed or misguided adaptations that we’ve all had to endure over the years that will quickly remind you just how rare and difficult an accomplishment this fine truly is.
I’m still not entirely convinced that the story itself is one with sufficient inherent appeal to me to guarantee that I will actually manage to stick with it for the entire six-episode run – and once you miss an episode I rather think that there will be no easy way back into it, as it’s a serial that demands your undivided attention and requires you to bring your full faculties to bear on the matter in hand. Perhaps a DVD boxset binge might prove the better way to go with this one. But even so, the fabulous success of the first episode against all my expectations means I’ll certainly be there for the start of part two, and if Davies, Harper and that awesome cast can cast the same spell again for a second hour then I’ll be back for a third, and a fourth, and a … You get the idea.
It even made me pick up a copy of War and Peace in the bookshop this week and scan through the first page or two – but I have to say, Tolstoy’s prose doesn’t appeal to me to anything like the degree of Davies’ screenwriting. Call me a Philistine by all means, but I need the visuals and the authorial hand-holding if I’m ever to tackle this story in any form whatsoever, and that’s what the BBC are so effectively providing each and every Sunday evening in January. If the license fee is for anything at all, then surely it is for a production such as this.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
War and Peace continues on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm and episodes are thereafter available on BBC iPlayer. The full series is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from February 8 2016.