Last night BBC4 kicked off its season of eighteenth-century sauce with the first half of Andrew Davies’ adaptation of John Cleland’s classic Fanny Hill. I was rather looking forward to this, because it was a daring choice, although I suppose Davies was bound to get around to it eventually while working his way through the English literary canon.
The first instalment dealt with the relatively (and I stress relatively) plot-heavy earlier parts of the novel. In brief, orphaned Lancashire lass Fanny (engaging newcomer Rebecca Night) arrives in London to seek a career in service, only to be taken in by madam Mrs Brown (the very game Alison Steadman) who intends to flog off Fanny’s virginity to the highest bidder. After meeting her true love Charles, Fanny escapes the brothel with her virtue just about intact, and the two lovers shack up together before a penniless Charles is shipped off to the Indies by his evil father and Fanny is left down on her luck. And, well, that’s about it. There is, of course, a reasonable amount of shagging along the way.
Now this is probably the most obvious stumbling block for anyone who wants to adapt Fanny Hill. The usual Davies MO is to take a work from the canon – it may be Austen or Dickens – and spice it up. In this case, he’s had to tone things down massively. The problem is that Fanny Hill is a work of pornography – beautifully written pornography, but still pornography. The 39 separate sex scenes described in minute detail in the novel are not simply the heart of the story, they are literally the bulk of the story. To really capture Fanny Hill faithfully, you would need the production values of BBC costume drama combined with the explicitness of hardcore porn.
Obscenity laws and broadcasting regulations, of course, won’t allow that. All those loving descriptions of erect penises that litter the novel? Can’t show them. Ditto for penetration and ejaculation. The sex scenes we saw last night were plenty by normal costume drama standards – and, if my memory of the novel is correct, I expect things to get racier in the second half – but it wasn’t Tipping the Velvet. In fact, the lesbian scenes between Fanny and Phoebe were a good bit cleaner than those in the 1983 feature film. Trouble is, if you adapt Fanny Hill and tone down the sex, aren’t you just left with, well, something very like Moll Flanders?
Actually, Davies does better than this, and the adaptation isn’t by any means a flop. Rightly, Davies has figured out that Cleland’s great triumph was in the creation of Fanny’s distinctive voice, and the device of having Night pop up to give on-screen narration captures some of the archness of the original. It makes sense to concentrate on the Fanny-Charles love story, although that won’t be sustainable in the shag-heavy second half. He also deftly avoids one of the major pitfalls of period shagging, which is that it often seems too camp for words. (This was one of the big faults of Russell T Davies’ Casanova – during the French Revolution scenes, I almost expected to see Citizen Camembert and the Black Fingernail turning up.) And the casting of Rebecca Night was a great move – she doesn’t just look the part, but carries the lead with genuine charisma.
A qualified success, then. I look forward to seeing how it’s brought to climax.