Moor than enough: Joss (Sean Harris) in Jamaica Inn. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC
Show Hide image

Jamaica Inn: yet another gloomy period drama, or a gem worth sticking with?

Television dramas are so gloomy lately that you can barely make anything out. “Pass me the night-vision goggles!” you think, as you squint at the screen.

Jamaica Inn
BBC1

I’m not sure when you’ll be reading this. It might be just before the BBC’s new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn starts (21-23 April, 9pm) – or it might be after it has begun. So I’ll be careful. Some of you will know the ending of the novel, so strange and so violent; a few will know the book inside out. But rest assured that if you don’t, I’m not going to be the one to reveal the name of the story’s Mr Big, for all that, in the case of this version, you’re likely to work it out pretty quickly yourself. If he (or she) had a neon sign above his (or her) head that read, “Warning! This is Mr Big – he is not what he seems and he has a pistol in his pocket!” it could not be any more obvious.

The BBC has given us a fairly faithful adaptation of du Maurier’s melodrama of smuggling and murder in the 1820s. It’s a shame that the pencil sketch – fans will know what I mean – found by the heroine, Mary Yellan, as the narrative hurtles to its end has disappeared. Its replacement with damning evidence that is altogether less subtle makes her final confrontation with Mr Big feel rather odd, almost as if it has come from another film altogether (possibly The Wicker Man).

Elsewhere, the show’s writer, Emma Frost, has stuck pretty close to the novel. This script is certainly better than the one she wrote for The White Queen. She’s working with vastly better material – Philippa Gregory is barely fit to touch the turn-ups on du Maurier’s tweedy, wide-legged trousers.

Sarah Brown Findlay as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

Sarah Brown Findlay as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

I was nervous when I read that Jamaica Inn had been directed by Philippa “Call the Midwife” Lowthorpe. The icky tone of that series has infected the BBC schedules with distinctly putrid results (see, for instance, The Crimson Field, the woefully sanitised drama about attractive and plucky nurses during the First World War). But she has done good work here. The landscape shots are wonderfully bleak and lingering: a mail coach moving over the moor like a beetle crawling over a boulder; a group of wreckers committing foul acts in salty water with a determination that is just a heinous notch off appearing playful. Best of all, everyone looks authentically dirty and wet. In close-up, even their fingernails are black.

The pace is slow. The BBC should have commissioned a 90-minute film rather than three hour-long parts (an atmosphere of fear and foreboding can’t be created simply by dragging something out). That was hardly Lowthorpe’s fault. The BBC is all about “value” these days and doubtless those tumbledown Yorkshire locations – yes, Cornish people, much of the series was filmed near Barnsley – didn’t come cheap.

About the casting, I was less sure. Jessica Brown Findlay, late of Downton Abbey, is good as Mary: sullen, fiery and brave. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Sean Harris (the shooter in Southcliffe) puts in a nice growling turn as her uncle, Joss Merlyn, even if he lacks the physical heft I’ve always pictured, a mere ferret to the bear of my imagination. I couldn’t stand Matthew McNulty (from The Paradise) as his brother, Jem. No charisma. I couldn’t believe in his relationship with Mary. The pair of them seemed somehow to be going through the motions, like Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy, only grubbier and with more ale.

Aunt Patience was played by Joanne Whalley, whom I haven’t seen on-screen for a while. She ably pulled off the masochism involved in the role but she looked all wrong. At first, I thought it was her burnished skin. Then I realised it was her teeth, which could not have been less 18th century if they’d tried.

On the plus side, they come in useful at times. Television dramas are so gloomy lately that you can barely make anything out. “Pass me the night-vision goggles!” you think, as you squint at the screen. But it was always possible to see Patience. Her gleaming white gnashers were a beacon and I wondered why her husband didn’t use her to lure the laden ships of the East India Company on to the rocks. She could very easily have done the work of his lantern and saved him goodness knows what on tallow.

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 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496