The Innocent and the Rake

Last Update: 26 July 2002

David Shannon
Radio Times
November 23, 1991

Two million pounds, a million words, 1,500 costumes, four tonnes of cobbles and two charismatic stars - how BBC TV made a drama out of an 18th century classic. Asked to name an exciting period in world history, few people would make England in the mid-18th century their first choice. Thin on the ground as far as armadas, civil wars and revolutions are concerned, it is remembered for little these days except coffee houses, fops, Samuel Johnson and cheap gin. If tested, nine out of ten Britons probably couldn't even identify who was on the throne at the time.

But a work of fiction first published then still holds our interest today: Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa". One of the first, greatest and longest novels ever written in English, it's about a wealthy, headstrong young woman who falls out with her family and in with a beguiling but treacherous rake. A major influence on de Laclos's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", "Clarissa" has been adapted for a new three-part drama series which begins on BBC2 on Wednesday.

Even though Richardson meant his novel to be morally improving, this didn't stop him taking an unusually keen interest in matters depraved and corrupt. In the series, as in the novel, Clarissa innocently finds herself taking refuge in a house which turns out to be a brothel. Maddened by her refusal to yield to him, the rake ends up drugging and raping her.

Even before its screening, "Clarissa" had its critics. One newspaper complained that the end of the story had been changed and attacked director Robert Bierman for not having read every word of the novel. As there are more than a million of them, filling seven volumes, this isn't really surprising. Producer Kevin Loader points out that screenplay writers David Nokes and Janet Barron both know it backwards."In a way, it is better to have a director who will come in and say, 'you're all getting bogged down in the novel. I need to make it work as a film'."

Cherished by some as a pioneering feminist work, the main theme of the book remains relevant today: the fate of a young woman who makes a stand against her family, recognises her duty towards them but won't be bullied by them and attempts to strike out on her own. David Nokes and Janet Barron describe "Clarissa" as "one of the most powerful fictional explorations of sexual politics in English. Its significance as an outstanding study of sexual obsession and identity has been strongly reasserted in the present decade." Like "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", the novel allows its narrative to unfold entirely through letters - a televisual equivalent of watching paint dry. "We've distilled it down to a pacey story, although we keep the letters where they are essential to the plot," says Kevin Loader.

Period adaptations are, as Loader has discovered, risky projects to undertake. Viewers are quick to notice not only tinkerings with the plot but such howlers as swordfights taking place in front of electricity pylons. Patience, skill and a UKL2 million budget have enabled the "Clarissa" production team to avoid such pitfalls.

"The BBC has a great tradition in adapting classic novels, although it has been slightly out of fashion in the past five years," says Loader. "There is a great attention to period detail in "Clarissa", but I hope we've also been able to skew the genre slightly. We chose a director who has never done such work before and is better known for modern thrillers ("Vampire's Kiss"). And we deliberately chose a young cast. When adaptations were in their heyday, it was almost as if a BBC repertory company popped up in every one. We were keen to do one without the usual faces in it."

Hence 24-year-old Saskia Wickham, making her screen debut as Clarissa. Although the character she plays is innocent and impressionable Wickham insists she isn't just another of romantic fiction's soppy drips. "Drips don't run away from their parents in the middle of the night with rakes, or from whorehouses in the middle of the night with no money," she says. "The whole point about Clarissa is that she is feisty. She is very strong-willed, but very naive, and that's why she gets into so much trouble."

Lovelace, the scoundrel who provides most of the trouble for her to get into, is played by 32-year-old Sean Bean, seen recently as the dog-doting father in Julie Burchill's BBC1 Screen One drama, "Prince". The secret of playing an unpleasant character well, he thinks, is "to make them as likeable as possible without losing their sinister side. Lovelace is a young aristocrat whose sport is chasing women into bed. The bigger the challenge - the more they resist - the more he enjoys it. Like most young men, he's out for a good time. He just goes about it in a different way to most of them."

While few television programmes command UKL2 million budgets nowadays, period drama has always been an expensive business - especially where outside locations are used. "Doors have to be changed, lines painted out, cars moved and signs taken down," says "Clarissa's" production designer Gerry Scott. "Even if you find the right building, by the time you've redecorated it, put its furniture in store and paid for the actors, it works out cheaper to build it from scratch." Also responsible for the elaborate sets in last year's adaptation of Kingsley Amis's "The Green Man", Gerry Scott is renowned for creating sets so convincing that few people realise they aren't real locations. Among the period pieces she had built for "Clarissa" were a three-storey Georgian house, a coaching inn and a London street market. Her hardest job, though, was finding the right soft furnishings. "We ended up with a lot of stuff that wasn't exactly correct for the period. We just hope that it won't scream 'Victorian!' too loudly."

Curtains, however, did work as inspiration for costume designer Ken Trew. "Their strong patterns proved ideal for the period," he says. William Hogarth's prints and paintings provided valuable reference, too. The hair and make-up people only had to look at portraits from the time to understand the mid-18th century idea of physical beauty: fashionable young men never left home without a wig - preferably white, pink or lilac. Fashionable young women believed having a double chin, wearing pink eye shadow and whitening their faces with lead make-up all improved their looks.

Fortunately, we won't have a lead-faced heroine. Polly Fehily, who took care of Saskia Wickham's make-up, had an important advantage. "Some of the characters are made up in ways quite alien to us. If Clarissa was a society girl, it would have been difficult to make her look a tractive to a modern audience. But she is a country girl and supposed to look natural."

The biggest cosmetic overhaul was reserve for the male lead, including, at the start of each day's filming, fitting Sean Bean's wig. "Women wore their hair quite plainly, but, whatever the station, most men wore wigs," says make-up supervisor Marilyn McDonald. "Long hair was fashionable and, if a young man couldn't grow it himself, he'd wear a wig. Lovelace even has wig for what is supposed to be his own hair."

Sean Bean might be grateful that, unwigged, he looks nothing like the lascivious Lovelace. "I've played unlikeable characters before and no one has yet come up and thumped me," he says. Kevin Loader adds: "He doesn't get much attention because he's so different off camera: a shy unassuming chap you'd be happy to have a few pints of lager with."

If, in the course of a few lagers, you find yourself trying to remember who was on the throne in 1748, perhaps the following will help: he came immediately before George III, immediately after George I and wasn't called William or Mary. All right, I had to look him up too. Dressing for the Part Costume designer Ken Trew hired, adapted and made nearly 1,500 different costumes for "Clarissa". Both sexes dressed to excess, with women favouring long, panniered skirts, petticoats, corsets and stomachers and enough ribbon to parcel wrap a small cabin cruiser, while the men opted for square-cut coats, breeches, shirts and waistcoats. The dark green velvet coat worn by Sean Bean on this week's cover is heavily embroidered with silver and gold, and weighs almost as much as a suit of armor. "If you had money then, you flaunted it," says Trew.

Some of the corsets the female characters had to wear were so stiff they couldn't sit down in them. "The way we stood and moved was dictated a lot by the costumes," says Saskia Wickham. "You couldn't slouch and you certainly couldn't rush around - it was all very restrained."

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