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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear