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

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.