Straightforward, faithful adaptations of literary classics used to be the backbone of UK evening drama, but it’s been a while since valuable prime time has been permitted on such endeavours without them perforce becoming big-budget, all-star, sexed-up spectaculars even at the cost of taking increasing liberties with the source material.
The last time The Moonstone was made for television was 20 years ago and you can’t imagine it finding a home in the evening schedules these days. Fortunately, the BBC’s daytime programming has stepped into the breach: it has been developing a very impressive line of simple but effective drama productions of late including Father Brown, WPC 56 and The Coroner, to which now can be added a brand new five-part mini-series of Wilkie Collins’ 1868 work scripted by Rachael Flowerday and Sasha Hails and directed by Lisa Mulcahy.
The new adaptation is a straight-forward, no-frills affair – which is without doubt a good thing. Stripped of the sort of artistic reinvention and pretension too common on prime time serials of late, this version allows the story to stand on its own merits without trying to make any excuses or amp things up. And the story is a good one too: widely regarded as one of the earliest works of detective fiction, it centres around the theft of a priceless diamond on the night of Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday. Everyone in the house – family, guests and servants – is under suspicion, but despite the best efforts of celebrated police detective Sergeant Cuff (based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher, with aspects of the novel borrowing from the infamous Constance Kent murder that took place just three years before The Moonstone’s publication) the case remains unsolved 12 months later when it’s reopened by Rachel’s would-be suitor Franklin Blake.
The epistolary novel is told through a series of accounts by various potentially unreliable narrators including the Verinders’ head servant Gabriel Betteredge (played in this new TV version by Leo Wringer), pious and sanctimonious busybody Miss Clack (Sarah Hadland), family solicitor Mr Bruff (David Calder) and the opium-addicted Doctor Ezra Jennings (Trevor Fox) with an epilogue from local explorer and adventurer Mr Murthwaite (Guy Henry.) The TV version dutifully follows this structure with each narrator contributing a valuable new part of the puzzle. While the down-to-earth production doesn’t allow things to go full-Rashomon to distinguish between the different points of view, there’s certainly a wonderful laugh-out-loud levity to the portrayal of events recalled by the scene-stealing Miss Clack in particular in stark contrast to the tale of tragic maid Roseanna Spearman (Jane McGrath).
The tiny budget of a daytime production means that most of the production appears to have been shot quickly and efficiently on location with little time to indulge in tricks and stylistic tics. That ends up giving it a nicely old-fashioned feel evoking the kind of classic BBC dramas of the 1970s when everything would have been mounted in a handsome but obvious stage in a BBC Television Centre studio. The director is content to sit back and allow the story to breath and give the actors room to work rather than forcing the pace into some harum-scarum helter-skelter précis. Other than Cold Feet’s John Thomson fairly brief cameo as Cuff the cast is largely devoid of notable star names, with Blake played by relative TV newcomer Joshua Silver and Rachel by the similarly little-known Terenia Edwards, but everyone distinguishes themselves admirably and there are no weak links to be found anywhere in the line-up of delightfully realised vivid characters. Indeed, the lack of famous faces helps keep the focus on the story – right where it should be.
The 2016 version of The Moonstone is a success, then – and like much of the BBC’s daytime drama output, a quiet and self-effacing success at that, one that deserves far more recognition that it will likely ever receive but which will be a warmly-held and jealously guarded secret for those of us who have stumbled upon its delights.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The Moonstone was aired on BBC One from October 31 to November 4 2016 and is available on iPlayer for viewers in the UK for a month after original transmission. It will be released on DVD in the UK on November 21 and reshown on BBC One during the Christmas holidays. The 1996 version starring Greg Wise and Keeley Hawes is also available.