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29 October 2014
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Network TV Week 38


A brutal kind of beauty

  Gemma Arterton takes the lead role in Tess Of The D'Urbervilles
Gemma Arterton takes the lead role in Tess Of The D'Urbervilles

Tess Of The D'Urbervilles
Day and time to be confirmed BBC ONE

Programme copy

BBC Television's first-ever adaptation of Tess Of The D'Urbervilles presented a daunting challenge for the production team. Here, screenwriter David Nicholls explains how he became obsessed in trying to capture the light and shade in Thomas Hardy's classic novel.


"I first read Tess Of The D'Urbervilles when I was 16, rather grudgingly, as part of an exam curriculum. I don't think I can recall ever being so affected by a book.


"Re-reading it nearly 25 years later, it had lost none of its power to engage and move, shock and delight. It's a novel of remarkable power, with a story that grips from its very first scene until its terrible, heart-breaking conclusion. It seemed to cry out for a new screen adaptation and I'm delighted with our final version, BBC TV's first-ever adaptation of the work. I hope it faithfully captures the light and shade of Hardy's masterpiece.


"It's commonplace to talk of classic novels as being surprisingly 'modern', but this seems especially true of Tess. The pleasure, and occasional frustration, of many classic novels is that they revolve around unspoken passions, but in Tess, everything is expressed. It's a wonderfully emotionally charged story, both intensely romantic and startlingly violent.


Eddie Redmayne gives the heroic Angel Clare an easy charm
Eddie Redmayne gives the heroic
Angel Clare an easy charm
"The courtship of Angel [Eddie Redmayne] and Tess [Gemma Arterton] contains some delightful, sensual love scenes – almost a romantic comedy at times – and yet this follows an act of startling cruelty and callousness. Hardy is justly famed as a writer of the natural world, but he is also tough-minded, provocative, indignant at hypocrisy and injustice, and I hope we've captured some of this dark drama as well as the beauty and romance of the story.


"Perhaps Hardy's greatest achievement is his heroine. It's unusual to read a book where the author is so clearly in love with his creation, and Hardy devises a series of extraordinary highs and lows for her, from giddying romantic love and prosperity to terrible degradation and suffering.


"There is no single personification of Tess; she is a schoolgirl, a mother, a lover, a wife, a slave-labourer, a prisoner, a rebel, a courtesan, a criminal, and yet throughout her remarkable journey she never loses her integrity or her capacity for life.


"This Tess is not just a passive victim, but an active, forceful, opinionated young working-class woman. It's a daunting challenge for any actress, but I think Gemma Arterton's performance is extraordinary. In four hours of television she is off-screen for perhaps 20 minutes, and yet she maintains a clarity and intensity that is remarkable in such a young actress.


"In our adaptation we were keen to emphasise that this is very much a novel about young people in love. Tess is 17 when we first meet her, her rival lovers are men in their mid-twenties – even Tess's mother is only in her mid-thirties. I hope we've captured some of that youth and freshness in the casting.


Gemma Arterton as Tess and Hans Matheson as Alec D'Urberville
Gemma Arterton as Tess and Hans
Matheson as Alec D'Urberville
"The danger with any portrayal of Alec D'Urberville is that he becomes merely a moustache-twirling seducer, but Hans Matheson endows him with a compelling mix of arrogance and self-loathing, sex appeal and menace. Similarly Angel Clare, supposedly the 'nice guy' to Alec's villain, could all too easily come across as priggish and self-righteous, but Eddie Redmayne gives him an easy charm. His love scenes with Tess are extremely touching.


"In an exceptional cast, it's also worth mentioning Ruth Jones as Tess's manipulative, self-absorbed mother and Anna Massey as the formidable but humane Mrs D'Urberville. Jodie Whittaker, Rebekah Stanton and Emily Beecham, are alternately funny and touching as Tess's loyal friends, all unrequitedly in love with the same man.


"To my mind, Tess and Angel's farewell in the morning light at Stonehenge is the most moving scene in English literature, so to be able to recreate it, at dawn, on location at the correct time of year, was tremendously exciting. This production was shot entirely on location on 35mm and while the results are frequently stunning, this inevitably brings huge challenges.


"In Hardy, people tend not to sit in front of drawing room fires; they stand in landscapes, frequently in the rain or snow. Shooting outdoors through a particularly unpredictable English spring made great demands on the production team.


"Any adaptation of Hardy has to capture the beauty of his nature writing without forgetting that this is a brutal, unforgiving landscape too and David Blair, a director who works a great deal with contemporary writers like Jimmy McGovern and Donna Franceschild, has brought a toughness and authenticity to the world and the performances.


"We set out on this adaptation with various aims. The production should be beautiful but not "pretty"; it should be about characters in a landscape, not just the landscape. It should grip like a thriller, but also move the audience deeply.


"Tess Of The D'Urbervilles is a romantic epic, one of the great love stories but a cruel and violent saga too, and I hope we've faithfully captured that high emotion, the mix of light and shade that makes Hardy's novel so compelling and sublime."




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