A Ravisher Revealed

Last Update: 26 July 2002

Kathryn Spencer
Observer Magazine
November 24, 1991

American horror-film director Bob Bierman sums up the dauntingly long novel from which his new television serial is taken in one sentence: 'It's very simple - guy falls for girl, girl falls for guy, guy rapes girl, girl decides to die.' Samuel Richardson took a million words, five years and seven volumes to reach a similar unhappy conclusion in his pioneering, epistolary novel, "Clarissa: History of a Young Lady", written nearly 250 years ago. After more than a century out of fashion, Richardson's masterpiece has been rediscovered. Academics like Terry Eagleton have seized on the book as a powerful exploration of erotic obsession and sexual politics, while several feminist commentators have hailed the man-defying virgin as a heroine. Suddenly, "Clarissa" is a story relevant to the 1990s.

A TV series is a natural progression for this once-forgotten classic, told completely in letters from Clarissa and Lovelace to their respective best friends, Anna Howe and fellow rake John Belford. It describes how the beautiful Clarissa Harlowe falls under the protection of the handsome aristocrat Lovelace after rejecting the rich suitor preferred by her family. A known philanderer, Lovelace is determined to seduce Clarissa, while she in turn seeks to reform him before considering marriage. He finally drugs and rapes her in a brothel. Clarissa declines into a Christian death while a broken Lovelace is killed in a duel.

Completed in 1748, a year before rival Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones", the book is rarely read outside literary academe. Its predecessor, the inferior (but much shorter) "Pamela" (1741), parodied for its prurience by Fielding in "Shamela", is a little more widely read. Yet in its day "Clarissa" was a popular success, admired by Jane Austen and later Henry James, while Samuel Johnson wrote: 'There is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all "Tom Jones".' With its theme of a virtuous woman ruined by the love of a rake, "Clarissa" was almost certainly the model for Laclos's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (1779), itself successfully staged and filmed twice over in the 1980s.

Now Clarissa is set to become as much a talking point as she was in the 1740s. The TV series provoked a minor controversy even before it was previewed. Polemics in the "Mail on Sunday" and the "Spectator" - both written by a young Cambridge graduate who had yet to see a rough-cut - attacked the script as a 'rape' of "Clarissa's" integrity. More accurately, it was pointed out that neither the director nor lead actors had read the novel.

A newcomer to television, 24-year-old Saskia Wickham plays the tragic heroine, with former RSC Romeo Sean Bean, 32, as Lovelace. Sean's own roots are far from aristocratic - he is a welder's son from Sheffield turned RADA graduate who retains a disarmingly broad Yorkshire accent off-screen. Bierman chose him in preference to Britain's stable of public school actors because Lovelace needed to exude raw sex, the aura of a wolf in fine sheep's clothing. Indeed, when "Clarissa" first came out, Richardson was dismayed that many of his women readers fell in love with Lovelace rather than identifying with Clarissa. 'You've got to have animal magnetism for Lovelace,' says Bierman. 'Sean is very sexy and tasty and he is also a truly great actor. The camera loves him. He is Mr Down-to-Earth off-screen, the antithesis of Lovelace. But when he gets on screen he is another man, riveting. That is why he is so brilliant. Saskia has energy, vulnerability, balls and strength, but we picked her because as soon as she tested with Sean we saw this electric pairing, crackling and sparking with sexual energy.'

The amiable Sean, resplendent off-set in wig, ruffled shirt, hose and buckled shoes, sees Lovelace as a man essentially driven by sex, a very modern Jack the Lad, who cannot get to grips with his deeper feelings. 'Lots of men would like to be like Lovelace when they are young. Women normally fall for him effortlessly but Clarissa is different. He is obsessed with getting her into bed and deflowering her. He gradually gets more and more obsessed by her; he's falling in love with her - then he ruins things by raping her.'

'Why does he rape her? He's tried almost everything else. He gets to the point where there's no other way for him. He is a bit of a nasty piece of work but he's also got charm, wit and humour. I think there was a part of Richardson that would have liked to have been Lovelace. He's a good schemer and I admire that. But I don't mind showing how nasty and devious he could be. His tragedy is that he cannot show his love for Clarissa until it is too late, and after the rape he goes downhill.'

Bob Bierman is an award-winning commercials director whose drama work includes the Screen One film "Frankenstein's Baby" and the cult horror film "Vampire's Kiss". This is his first period piece, but producer Kevin Loader wanted to get away from the reverent kid gloves and ruffles approach to BBC period drama. After all, "Clarissa" is set in the worldly, sexual age of Hogarth. Bierman, a man of infectious enthusiasm, rose to the challenge. He admits: 'I've never done costume drama before - I'm not that sort of director - but then I did some research about the Georgian period and knew this was the project I wanted. This is not the repressed Victorian age - the eighteenth century was a time when emotions and sexuality were running high. Everyone looked great and was interested in their bodies and clothes and everything to do with sex.

'And yet the story is about now. It's about young people wanting to escape, about the traumas of falling for someone who is like a wild animal. Clarissa is looking for an inner soul in Lovelace and she just can't find it. In 1991, young people are also pumped up with sex up-front, with no internal soul feeling. Lovelace is not emotionally mature enough for Clarissa. He is a man who has everything but blows it.'

The strong supporting cast includes Diana Quick, with Cathryn Harrison as the madam of an up-market brothel where Clarissa is secreted. Saskia's own father, Jeffrey Wickham, plays Clarissa's tyrannical parent, with Jonathan Phillips and Lynsey Baxter as her jealous brother and sister. The story has been adapted with impeccable academic authority by eighteenth-century literature tutor David Nokes of King's College, London, and his partner, Janet Barron, a writer. It took them a year to complete, spending two to three months on each one-hour script. The pair of them would often write a scene separately and compare notes, and would even act out dialogue on tape to ensure it worked dramatically.

'We wanted to ensure the viewpoints of Clarissa and Lovelace had equal weight,' says Janet. Nokes adds: '"Clarissa" is not quite the longest English novel - Richardson's third book, "Sir Charles Grandison", is even longer. But once people start reading "Clarissa", there is a point at which the hook goes in - you want to know what happens to this couple. Also, the 1990s is the right time for "Clarissa" to come to the screen, just as its contemporary "Tom Jones" was for the early 1960s. "Tom Jones" was a lads' film with a young working-class hero, where the women were not well characterised. It was the age of the angry young men, but where were the angry young women like Clarissa? In "Clarissa" there is a strong female voice and it is more in tune with today's feminist viewpoint - even though it was written by a man.'

Televising such a long book meant that sub-plots had to be jettisoned, but the lively script by Nokes and Barron remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of Richardson's work. Only Clarissa's drawn-out decline into a martyr-like death - which takes up nearly a quarter of the novel - has been drastically cut to just a few scenes.

Nokes and Barron, who was herself once raped, particularly defend their explicit rape scene, which Richardson passes over with Lovelace's chilling report: 'The Affair is over: Clarissa lives.' Yet after the rape he has Clarissa herself revealing to her confidante details of how she was drugged and held down. 'I am happy with the way it has turned out once filmed,' says Nokes. Saskia Wickham was chosen out of hundreds of actresses to play Clarissa. The producers were seeking a youthful appearance and an aura of innocence. 'Although,' says producer Kevin Loader, 'we also wanted Clarissa to be quite a feisty young woman; in the book she shows herself not without humour and irony. She is a normal, healthy woman .'

Saskia herself says she took a while before she could get to grips with the character of Clarissa. 'She is a normal young girl - not some sort of bible basher,' says Saskia. 'She's just trying to live her life in the way she believes it should be led. I have taken Clarissa on board and I like her a lot more now - she seems to be more of a human being and less of a caricature of purity and innocence. At the beginning, she's quite giggly and jokey. She is strong-willed but naive and enormously brave when she refuses to marry the man her family has chosen for her.

'There's a huge sexual attraction between Lovelace and Clarissa. With him she has feelings she has never had before. She's fighting against them because she knows deep down he is not good news for her. She is desperate for him to be what she wants him to be and just before she dies she says: 'I could have loved him."

'Lovelace is genuinely touched by Clarissa, more than any of his previous women, and he is capable of love, definitely. I think both of them are surprised about their emotions. But they are like parallel lines and that is the tragedy. She is essentially good and he is essentially bad. She is so set in her ways, and he is too. After the rape by Lovelace, Clarissa loses the will to live. The rape destroys her hope in love and there is nothing more for her but death.' Loader adds: 'I don't know if Richardson would quite approve of what we've done to his work; he probably wouldn't like the way we've cut some of the piety. But this is a great story of unfulfilled love and passion which all goes horribly wrong, of repressed sexuality. It is a semi-gladiatorial struggle between Clarissa and Lovelace. And it still has a lot to say about the place of women in the world, about women as economic chattels.'

Sean and Saskia's personal lives could not be more different from their doomed screen alter-egos. Sean Bean is married and has been with the same partner, Bread actress Melanie Hill, since they met at drama school more than 10 years ago. Their second child was born shortly after the end of shooting on "Clarissa." 'But I suppose I was quite jealous and obsessive, like Lovelace, when Melanie and I first fell in love,' he recalls. 'I can remember going to her flat with two swords because I thought she might be with another man. Luckily, she wasn't!'

Saskia Wickham, on the other hand, is in love with full parental approval - she took the weekend off from filming "Clarissa" in July to marry her fiance Sean Henderson, who works in the City. Their traditional church wedding in London had been arranged just before she got the role in "Clarissa". 'Sean was thrilled about "Clarissa" so he didn't mind postponing our honeymoon. But he was perhaps not entirely happy at first about the rape scene,' says Saskia. 'But I explained to him that it is all just acting - and integral to the story - it is just my job.'

Saskia insists she is not dissimilar to Clarissa. 'I am strong willed like her but also a bit of an innocent as well,' she says. Her father agrees. 'Saskia has an air of virtue about her without being over-sweet or cloying.' Samuel Richardson, who called Clarissa 'my girl', would surely have approved.

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