Amidst the plethora of golden anniversary celebrations of 1967 currently emerging like tadpoles swarming towards an early edition of Mr. Hazlitt’s Essays, and after an unforgivable absence of over six months from these pages, I would like to make my own humble contribution, namely an overview of the BBC’s costume dramas of that year based on novels that were either written or set in the Regency or early Victorian periods. Now, this could, I hear at least one reader exclaim, be something that might equally be done for any year of the 1960s, and she is right . Perhaps I shall turn the clock back to 1964 at some future juncture or forwards to 1968 or 1969. But ‘we are where we are’, in 2017, and thus by a simple process of subtraction, golden anniversary celebrations take us to 1967.
Moreover, this was no ordinary year in the history of television costume dramas or the small screen in general. No indeed! Astute readers will already know that 1967 saw the introduction of colour television in the British Isles (and also Germany, France and Holland). From July 1, BBC2 officially started occasional broadcasts in colour (studio recordings, feature and documentary films, imported film serials and live outside broadcasts) before the station turned completely into colour (barring a few exceptions) on December 2.
On that very day, episode one of the first full British costume drama serial to be made and broadcast in colour, Rex Tucker’s adaptation of Mr. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, was transmitted into the kitchens, lounges, attics, student digs and drawing rooms of at least some regions of the United Kingdom (sadly, for many of my fellow West Countrymen and women, the Mendip transmitter was not working until 1969, though the Wenvoe transmitter in Wales was broadcasting BBC2 in colour from August 1967). For those who had a 625-line colour TV, the frocks, cravats, carpets and, most importantly, Susan Hampshire, were in glorious PAL colour, albeit with occasional studio lighting problems that can surely be forgiven fifty years later.
Vanity Fair was the fitting culmination of a year in which studio-based costume dramas on both BBC channels were still in black & white. There is a little uncertainty around whether the adaptation of Wuthering Heights, broadcast on BBC2 in October and November 1967, may have initially been planned as the first colour costume drama. However, in the same Christmas week that The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was switched to BBC1 and broadcast in black & white, it fell to Vanity Fair to fully depict the colour and panache of the Regency clothes which had been an influence on contemporary fashion for the previous couple of years.
Here then is a brief synopsis of the Regency and Victorian BBC costume dramas of 1967. Much of the information has been sourced from the BBC’s Genome website and the IMDB film and television website (though the latter is occasionally inaccurate about colour/b & w status for individual programmes in 1967). The entries below contain information about the existence and availability of each serial. Future research will engage with programmes made for Independent TV channels. The most famous and popular costume drama of 1967, The Forsyte Saga, is not included here as its action and publication history falls outside the time period under consideration.
Great Expectations (BBC1, Jan 22-Mar 26, 10 Eps, b & w)
Charles Dickens’ seminal 1860 novel of Pip’s childhood encounter with convict Magwitch and his growth into eventual self-awareness through disappointment in the source of his ‘expectations’ has seemingly never been far away from a film or TV camera. A Victorian novel set (c.1810-1830) in the Regency period , my earliest memory of its visual representation was the 1981 BBC production with Joan ‘Miss Marple’ Hickson playing Miss Havisham and a teenage Patsy Kensit as the young Estella. The rarely-seen 1967 adaptation, directed by Alan Bridges, featured Gary Bond as Pip, Francesca Annis as Estella and the late Peter Vaughan as Mr. Jaggers. Though criticized at the time for a gruesome scene of a body hanging from a gibbet, it has otherwise been all but forgotten. Whilst the original videotape copy seems to have been deleted, a film telerecording exists in the archives, thus at least raising the possibility of a future commercial release. For context, the Beatles single released during the serial’s run was ‘Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields’. Were Regency sideboards ever more on the money?
St Ives (BBC1, April 9-May 14, 6 Eps, b & w)
Those who wish to read a synopsis of this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished 1897 novel of a captured Napoleonic soldier, Viscount Anne de Keroual de St. Ives, could do worse than consult a direct reminiscence from a contributor to the IMDb website: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424464/reviews?ref_=tt_ov_rt. The historian must rely heavily on such memories as the serial itself was junked/wiped from the archives.
Lovers of 60s psychedelic pop might be intrigued to know that Murray Head, whose 1967 Immediate single ‘She Was Perfection’ is, I am reliably told, ‘a gas’, played the part of Saladin in two episodes.
Further Adventures of the Musketeers (BBC1, May 21-Sept 3, 16 Eps, b & w)
Alexandre Dumas’ celebrated 1844 historical novel of seventeenth-century intrigue, Les trois mousquetaires, and its two sequels, have enjoyed a long history of cinematic (from 1903) and television representation in French, English and beyond. Friendly with Dickens, Dumas was quickly translated into English, with three versions doing the rounds by 1846. It has long been one of the most popular French novels in English, with dozens of film versions and loosely-based adaptations and three British TV serials (1954, 1966, 2014).
Over the summer of 1967, BBC1 broadcast Further Adventures of the Musketeers, the sequel to the previous years’ The Three Musketeers, starring Joss Ackland as D’Artignan (in the 1966 serial he was played by Jeremy Brett) and a young Brian Blessed as Porthos. This serial was based on the Dumas sequel, Twenty Years After (Vingt ans après, 1845).
Both serials were kept in the archives, at least in the form of telerecordings. The quality is evidently good enough for commercial release, as both seem to be available on DVD (the 1967 serial as apart of Simply Media’s DVD releases). A very thorough review of this and the 1966 serial can be read at the excellent Archive TV Musings blog: https://archivetvmusings.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/the-further-adventures-of-the-musketeers-to-be-released-by-simply-media-on-23516/
The Regency Mod will be putting this on his wish list for summer viewing.
Kenilworth (BBC2, July 22-Aug 12, 4 Eps, b & w)
Sir Walter Scott was popular at the BBC in the 60s & 70s, with several of his novels being dramatized (Rob Roy, 1961, The Heart of Midlothian, 1966, Kenilworth, 1967, Ivanhoe, 1970, Woodstock, 1973, The Fortunes of Nigel, 1974). However, only one episode, the final one, of David Conroy’s 1967 production of Kenilworth exists in the archives. Scott’s 1821 romantic novel of sixteenth-century ambition had already been dramatized by the BBC in 1957, a live adaptation featuring Paul Eddington (The Prisoner, The Good Life) as Edmund Tresillian. The role was played ten years later by Jeremy Brett, while the part of the 1st Earl of Leicester’s squire, Richard Varney, was taken by John Fraser (Repulsion, 1965).
Pride and Prejudice (BBC1, Sept 10-Oct 15, 6 Eps, b & w)
“Then, may we enter the parsonage.”
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of Regency manners has been, in its ‘original’ form, the subject of five British TV serials (1952, 1958, 1967, 1995, 2005) a TV movie (1938) and two major feature films (1940, 2005). It remains, for many, the ultimate nineteenth-century novel for translation to television and film. Curiously, though, the BBC’s 1967 production, with Celia Bannerman as Elizabeth Bennet and the late Lewis Fiander as Mr. Darcy, made to mark the 150th anniversary of the author’s death, evades DVD release despite still existing in the BBC archives.
The series was directed by Joan Craft and a low-resolution recording of episode 5 can be found on you tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQ3kzO1cVfA. The production has been criticized for supposed anachronisms of costume and appearance. At the BFI Screenonline website, Louise Watson writes: ‘The costumes and makeup (copious black eyeliner, bouffant hairdos) reflect the fashions of the 1960s rather than the novel’s Regency setting’ (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1012588/).
This seems a little unfair. More recent adaptations with vast resources have been equally guilty of adding contemporary touches and in forty years time will be open to the same retrospective critique. Based on one episode, it’s true that some costumes may have been influenced by 1967’s playful nostalgic blending of Victoriana, Edwardiana and the Regency (or simply matters of cost and availability). Neck attire, that of Mr. Darcy in particular, may not be entirely accurate. However, any ‘bouffants’ on show in the production look like wigs rather than freshly starched from a Chelsea salon.
Despite its drawbacks, it would be nice to see this production on sale. Hopefully, fans of ‘the Jane’, as I believe no one calls her, will knock on a few BBC doors and get the thing spruced up for commercial release.
Les Misérables (BBC1, Oct 22-Dec 24, 10 Eps, b & w)
And so, just a week later, BBC1 took its viewers from Pemberley to Provence, where Victor Hugo’s great 1862 novel, Les Misérables, begins its labyrinthine journey through the years from Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo (1815) to the July Revolution (1830).
Directed by Alan Bridges, this 10-episode production featured a cast including Frank Finlay as Jean Valjean, future ‘Betty’ in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em Michele Doltrice as Fantine and Vivian Mackerrell, the real-life prototype of Withnail, as Marius. Once again, a telerecording of the serial exists, though, as yet, there is no commercial DVD release, despite the novel’s abiding popularity as a stage musical.
Despite what Wikipedia says, the BBC have confirmed to me that this adaptation was not made in colour. Some scenes from it can be found as inserts in a Portuguese-language version of a 1990s North American TV programme about the novel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJmIe8KvCLQ
Lovers of French and American 60s pop may also like to hear this version of The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’ by Les Misérables – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5E2Y08Z-F8
Wuthering Heights (BBC2, Oct 28-Nov 18, 4 Eps, b & w, possible use of colour cameras)
The first half of 1967 in BBC2’s costume drama schedule was taken up by Donald Wilson’s 26-part epic production of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, which ran from Jan 7 until July 1, the day of the first official colour broadcast (a Wimbledon tennis quarter-final). With production having started in July 1966, it was made in black & white, BBC studios not being fully equipped for colour until summer 1967.
There has been some debate as to whether Hugh Leonard’s 1967 adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), may have initially been the first scheduled colour costume drama, though recent correspondence with the BBC’s Genome project would suggest otherwise.
Either way, what exists today on DVD is a reasonably clear and quite atmospheric black & white telerecording, mostly recorded in the studio but with location shots filmed near Haworth in West Yorkshire. The production itself, featuring Ian McShane as Heathcliff and Angela Scoular as Cathy and Catherine, is a bit stagy but intermittently compelling. Particularly striking, even today, is the window appearance of Cathy’s ghost, which various people have suggested was seen by Kate Bush as a child and the inspiration for her song ‘Wuthering Heights’. This scene was probably more spooky in the ‘as live’ feel of its original videotape transmission.
An interesting piece of colour film of the production team and actors in costume on location has been uploaded onto you tube by Anthony Greenwood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqnykhKyggs
Vanity Fair (BBC2, Dec 2-30, 5 Eps, colour)Embed from Getty Images
Dyson Lovell as Rawdon Crawley & Susan Hampshire as Becky Sharp, BBC studio, Oct 1, 1967
And so, to finish, Rex Tucker’s dramatization of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), produced by David Conroy and starring the delightful Susan Hampshire as Regency mischief-maker Becky Sharp. As already stated, this was the first British costume drama to be made in colour. Happily it still exists (albeit not in a totally homogeneous format) and is commercially available on DVD.
The move into colour certainly helped bring these period dramas to life, inevitably blurring the gap between past and present. Vanity Fair effectively begins the long sequence of classic costume dramas that now so divide opinion. Some viewers cannot abide the cheap studio props, heavy lighting and theatrical acting of these productions. Others, either reminiscing or simply fascinated by television history, accept the technical limitations and enjoy them for what they are: well-intended, faithful and generally well-acted adaptations of great literary works.
The 1967 Vanity Fair has all the charm and limitations of this period of small budget, tight deadlines and heuristic experimentation. Rushed post-production editing is in evidence (especially between film and videotaped sections of episode 1) but small quibbles shouldn’t detract from the overall lushness of the picture. At times a touch too close to drawing room farce rather than epic novel, it nonetheless deals well with the central themes of masquerade, scheming and hypocrisy. Roy Marsden is excellent as George Osborne and fans of Coronation Street will notice a very early performance by Thelma Barlow, playing the fastidious Miss Briggs.
Of the five episodes, the first has the slightly muffled, slow-motion quality of an NTSC conversion, while the others are much clearer (at least one is in its original PAL format). Being in colour, the serial was one of those selected to be converted into NTSC for the USA’s Masterworks series. During the period of junking, it seems that the BBC may have kept one or two episodes as historical evidence of their first colour drama (outtakes of the production also still exist). The DVD is composed of a combination of PAL and NTSC prints.
The British military costumes, long sideboards, paisley dresses, references to India and themes of flirtatiousness in a bellicose setting cannot help but echo and mirror events and fashions taking place outside the studio doors.