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Moonstone - The birth of an entire genre

How the first English detective novel has been brought to life in a new BBC One drama.

By John Yorke, Executive Producer

When I sat down with scriptwriters Rachel Flowerday and Sasha Hails to find a novel to adapt for the BBC ‘Love to Read’ season, our focus was always going to be choosing a story that had really captivated us.

Not just a literary classic that deserved a new life on screen, but also a genuine page-turner that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up; an extraordinary and compulsive piece of storytelling that stays with you over the years. Rachel had read The Moonstone twenty years ago, and it was still the first idea in her mind when we started discussing potential adaptations.

Of course there’s something else very special about The Moonstone. Crime stories are a staple of fiction all over the world – it’s hard to imagine our television schedules, or bookshelves, without them. But before 1868, the English detective novel just didn’t exist. Then Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone – and an entire genre was born.

In Franklin Blake, the gentleman detective first drew breath; in Sergeant Cuff, we first saw the world-weary professional investigator; The Verinders’ Yorkshire home is the prototype for every country house mystery ever written… Sherlock Holmes, Golden Age murder mysteries, Raymond Chandler, PD James, Patricia Cornwell and TV shows from Midsomer Murders to CSI all owe their debt to Collins’ ground-breaking work.

It’s not ‘just’ a crime story, however. In parallel, The Moonstone is a powerful romance: Collins hit on the brilliant conceit of tying the fate of the missing diamond to Franklin’s quest to win the heart of Rachel Verinder, the woman he loves. It matters desperately that the diamond’s been stolen – not because it is valuable, but because the shadow of the theft hangs over the Verinder family, and destroys their trust and former happiness. And alongside the love story, The Moonstone is also an astonishingly modern commentary on Colonialism, the English class system, religion and the position of women in society.

The theft of the Moonstone – the crime that incites the novel’s action – actually happens twice; it’s stolen from our heroine, Rachel Verinder, but long before that, as the prologue relates, it was stolen by her uncle from its home in India. The diamond is a symbol of all Colonial plunder – and we’re left in no doubt that Wilkie Collins stands with the dispossessed.

So the choice of novel was the easy part… Next we faced the challenge of translating the novel’s groundbreaking epistolary form – where a series of fallible narrators write their testimony about the build-up to, and aftermath of, the theft of the priceless Moonstone – to the screen.

Rather than opt for a linear retelling of the story, we decided to reflect The Moonstone’s narrative structure by having Franklin interview the key characters. One serendipitous result of this was that it pulled some of the revelations into the present day of the novel. We see Franklin find out about some events in Rachel’s life as they happen, and react strongly to that – which makes him much more active as a hero. Hopefully our audience will be on the edge of their seats as they wait, with Franklin, to discover the fate of the Moonstone – and his heart…

'A real test'

We faced tricky production issues too, from grumpy horses and bouncy dogs that just didn’t want to ‘sleep’, to beach locations that had changed beyond recognition between recce and shoot, to safety issues with rising tides. The prologue to the novel takes place in India fifty years previously, but we didn’t have the substantial budget needed to recreate that set-piece location – so we came up with a creative solution to represent the story in a manner that felt true to the era and tone, using a Victorian paper theatre and a little girl telling a story that’s been handed down through the generations…

The sequence where one character retrieves a box from deep within the quicksand of the Shivering Sands was also a real test. Without giving away spoilers, the incoming tide, a narrowing beach, and loss of daylight meant our actors, and director Lisa Mulcahy, had to rise to an immense challenge… as did the writers, who rewrote the sequence to use the conditions we were now faced with on the day.

There’s much in the novel, though, where we didn’t need to change a word. Writers Rachel and Sasha found working with Collins’ amazing characterisation a gift – many of the key scenes are constructed entirely from original dialogue – and he’s a consummate storyteller.

Like Charles Dickens, Collins was writing for publication in instalments, so he knew just how to hook an audience in. His mantra for writing was ‘make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait’ – and it certainly holds true for The Moonstone. Brilliant comic characterisations such as house-steward Gabriel Betteredge, and Evangelical spinster Miss Clack, are juxtaposed with heart-breaking tragedy in housemaid Rosanna’s story arc.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster with numerous twists and turns along the way – and we can’t wait to introduce a new audience to the jewel that is The Moonstone.

The Moonstone is on BBC One from Monday 31 October.