The red carpet at the world premiere of Far From the Madding Crowd. Photo: Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images
Show Hide image

What would Hardy make of his Bathsheba barrelling past on the side of a bus?

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

A film director friend of mine once explained to me the wherefores of successful film distribution in Britain: “It’s all down to your T-sides, Will,” he maintained. “Get your T-sides sorted or it doesn’t matter how many screens you open on, you still won’t get the bums on seats.” I had no idea at the time what a T-side was, but ever since he told me I’ve seen them everywhere. Often a T-side will glide across my field of vision when I’m least expecting it – supplanting my view of the Holloway Road, for example, with the winsome spectacle of a giant Carey Mulligan, red-cheeked and wind-tousled against a Wessex backdrop.

Yes, a T-side is the T-shaped advertising space on the flank of a double-decker bus, and industry types assure me you can’t get a maddened crowd for Far from the Madding Crowd unless your distributor can outbid all the others clamouring for these valuable sites. There seems a compelling irony here when we consider that, despite the enormous success of Hardy’s novel in his lifetime (it first appeared as a serial and then went into four separate bound editions before he died, each one extensively revised), he remained repelled by the new mass culture that emerged in the late 19th century. In John Carey’s path-breaking revisionist cultural history The Intellectuals and the Masses, he quotes extensively from the journals Hardy wrote during the 1880s, when the writer was living in the leafy ­London suburb of Upper Tooting. Haunted by the proximity of the mighty city, Hardy felt he was being watched by “a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes”.

But this wasn’t only a distant dehumanising prospect: the Great Romancer was equally revolted when he encountered the multitude up close and personally. At the British Museum he was nauseated by “crowds parading and gaily traipsing around the mummies, thinking today is for ever . . . They pass with flippant comments the illuminated manuscripts – the labour of years – and stand under Rameses the Great, joking. Democratic government may be justice to man, but it will probably entail merging [with the] proletarian, and when these people are our masters it will lead to more of this contempt, and possibly be the utter ruin of art and literature!”

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” His novels usually pit the intelligent and – Alan Johnson, take note – aspirational individual against entrenched privilege; yet while inequality may maim a Jude or a Tess or a Gabriel, often what finishes them off is the ignorant prejudices of the yokel mob. Thus Hardy has it both ways: valorising the simple and homespun but simultaneously decrying the herd mentality of the benighted Wessex peasantry. I shudder to think how freaked out he’d be by these crowds of Bathsheba Everdenes and Gabriel Oaks gaily traipsing across towns on the sides of buses.

Still, he must have given permission for the first sale of the novel’s film rights – because there was an early silent adaptation in 1915, while he was very much alive; since then, we’ve had John Schlesinger’s 1967 take on this pastoral of necro-narcissism, a TV movie in the 1990s, and now the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has brought to the tale the same unvarnished sensibility he applied to his incest-shocker, Festen. The first screen Bathsheba was played by Florence Turner, the so-called “Vitagraph Girl” (after the studio whose movies she starred in). New York-born, Turner pursued a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic, on stage and screen, throughout the Teens and Twenties of the 20th century. As well as acting she wrote scripts, and played a part in directing and producing her own vehicles – so, not an instance of typecasting at all.

In Hardy’s novel the stolid sheep farmer Gabriel Oak is first ensorcelled by Bathsheba Everdene when she lies back on her horse as it trots through a tunnel formed by low tree boughs. It’s an arrestingly sexual image: the beautiful young woman undulating in time with the strong rhythmic movements of the large body upon which she lies prone. Hardy’s crowd-phobia was certainly shared by many of his contemporaries, but you don’t have to accept unreservedly the thesis described in John Carey’s book in order to understand its queered provenance. Like all the great writers Hardy was good at noticing things – and in particular he was good at noticing those involuntary human gestures that reveal our true animality.

Perhaps this is what he really feared: not the prejudices and warped taboos of human society, but the overpowering desires such a culture imperfectly restrains. We all like to separate ourselves off from the mob. It’s they who graze on popcorn and slurp on slushes of ice and sugared water. Their love is bestial – the beast-with-two-backs they make is subject to a geometric progression: first two beasts, then four, then eight, then a multitude. Our love, by contrast, is as pure and soft as one of Gabriel Oak’s newborn lambs; our thoughts as elegant and symmetrical as an arabesque. Which is why it doesn’t matter how many T-sides they get: when we see a madding crowd heading in one direction, we head in the other – together with our own maddening one.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Show Hide image

Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

0800 7318496