TV UK, 18 November

Victorian moral conflicts were so much more straightforward.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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North and South is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of divided Victorian Britain, highlighting the differences between the industrial north and the genteel south, the conflict between the newly emerging social classes more developed in the former, and of course that perennial novelistic concern, relations between the sexes.

Subtle, it ain’t. Sunday’s opening episode introduced us to the cast of social ciphers: the gentle country parson and his highly strung wife, the ruthless young capitalist and his highly sprung mother, the horny handed but decent trade unionist and his actually rather laid-back daughter. At the centre of it all is Margaret, the parson’s daughter, forced to adjust to their new life in industrial Milton, and well placed to experience all of the tensions outlined above.

The adaptation is certainly competent and very watchable. People sometimes complain that the BBC does too many adaptations and not enough original drama, but actually there is a decent amount of new stuff on at the moment, even if some of it is on silly channels. Better to judge everything in its own terms, then, especially given that dramatists grappling with contemporary society are working with very different material from that of their nineteenth-century forebears.

Lie With Me, an original ITV1 drama (or at least one based on a recent novel) shown on Monday and Tuesday, revealed not so much a conflict between different sets of cultural mores, as the absence of any coherent view of how things should be. A youngish middle-class woman wakes one morning unable to remember what happened the previous night. She finds her flatmate murdered and later discovers that she herself has been raped. Well, that is, she has had sex, under the influence of the drug GHB, with her flatmate’s married boyfriend. And she can’t possibly have consented to that. Can she?

What made Lie With Me interesting was that it wasn’t about ‘entrenched social attitudes’ to sex and rape, or the assumptions made by the police. The woman couldn’t be sure of herself. In one excellent scene, Ros (Eve Best) was interviewed by a tough DCI (Bill Paterson) about whether she had taken drugs before. She had smoked a bit of cannabis as a student, and done some ecstasy, but not for a while…and, all right, cocaine once, but she hadn’t liked it. This much is unremarkable, hardly evidence that someone is out of control. Andrew Lincoln’s friendly young DI was on hand to offer tuned-in moral support. But a seed of doubt was sown. Come to think of it, the idea of a young professional choosing to take a drug like GHB is not that outlandish. And the rest, who knows?

The moral ambiguity spiralled. Ros entered into an affair with the young DI, and between them they decided to lie for the greater good, sending the flatmate’s boyfriend to prison on the strength of a must-have-been-rape ‘remembering’. The only clear moral agent was a sensitive young man who had been, er, stalking, Ros, and in the end it turned out that it was he, in a fit of moral outrage having witnessed her debauchery, who had raped her and murdered her flatmate. So much for certainty, it seems.

All this is a long way from Milton. If it’s panoramic views of social transformation and neat dissections of moral conflict you want, stick to adaptations. The stuff of contemporary drama – good, bad or indifferent – is self-doubt, moral uncertainty and the occasional bout of hysteria.

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