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Television - Andrew Billen on the embroidering of 19th-century classics

Unusually for a "classic" serial, Wives and Daughters (9pm, Sundays, BBC1) offers the pleasing vista of uncharted territory. Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 before she could finish what her television adapter, Andrew Davies, calls her masterpiece. We simply do not know how things are going to turn out. But then, until Sunday, most of us didn't know how they began, either. Mrs Gaskell is a neglected author - an injustice for which I blame Leavis's Great Tradition. Reading her book now, in pace with the adaptation, I am delighted to find that all the sharpest lines are hers, not Davies's.

The first of ITV's rival Oliver Twist (same time, same day, different channel) amazingly rewarded the viewer with a similar pleasure, for it was not the Oliver Twist we knew. Deciding that the 24-year-old Dickens did not know where his story started, Alan Bleasdale wrote a two-hour prequel from hints in the master's antepenultimate chapter. So episode one began on a clifftop with Twist's mother about to fling herself off, followed her to the workhouse where she died giving birth to Oliver and then went back to tell the story of her liaison with Oliver's father, Edward Leeford. One can only imagine the puzzled cries from ITV's 39-per-centers when they got a load of this: "Wot, no Fagin?"

Fortunately, they let Bleasdale and his director, Renny Rye, get on with it. The result was more Dickens than Dickens. Played with appalling vacillation by Tim Dutton, Twist's father emerged as one of the weakest good men ever created, constantly having to be reminded by his manservant not only what to do but why ("Because, Sir, you are a gentleman"). His evil wife, Elizabeth, of whom Dickens says merely "she had no great affection for him, nor he for her", was Lindsay Duncan, who has matured into one of British television's great character actresses. Her Elizabeth was a study in malice, a woman who not only poisons her husband, but literally puts the boot in when he is down, to the terror of her son, Monks. Leeford's Uncle Richard, meanwhile, was discovered lolling in a Roman bath, bathing the hideous lump on his neck: an instant addition to Dickens's gallery of grotesques, although entirely a product of Bleasdale's febrile imagination.

The result of all this invention was not only to open up Dickens's claustrophobic, coincidence-dogged story, but to explain his characters. Monks (Marc Warren) became a clear victim of parental abuse, defined by his mother and father's rejection. Even his fate was foreshadowed in Elizabeth's promise that he would one day enjoy a fresh start in the colonies. (Monks finally emigrates to the "New World", where he dies in prison.)

Bleasdale's anachronistic dialogue jarred occasionally. There was talk of Agnes being "pregnant", which sounded wrong, and Leeford cursed his "bad seed", as if he had seen too many horror movies. I thought Bleasdale certainly had when Leeford reared up from his deathbed to attack Elizabeth - very Wes Craven. Yet the occasional crudeness was true to the spirit of Dickens, who was rarely tasteful. This daring first episode was brushed by genius.

This is not to deny that Wives and Daughters, in its stately way, is fine work, too. Partly to keep its producer, Sue Birtwistle (who made Pride and Prejudice) sweet, Sir Christopher Bland held a big party at Bafta in Piccadilly to screen the first two episodes. The American I was sitting next to was intrigued by the subtleties and fluidity of class that the story essayed. The absurd Cumnors lord it at the top of the hierarchy; the double act of Misses Browning and Phoebe are as far down it as we are allowed to examine. In the middle is our heroine, Molly (an excellent Justine Waddell, her face oscillating from beauty to ugliness), and her father, Dr Gibson (Bill Paterson, watchable as ever). But where did the land agent, Mr Preston, fit in? "And what," asked my American friend, "is a squire?" In this case, it was Michael Gambon in top form as a scruffy truth-teller, suspicious of money and learning.

What everyone else was talking about in the interval, however, was the difficulty of being a step-parent or a stepchild. Dr Gibson's belated marriage to the pretentious and self-centred Hyacinth (Francesca Annis) touched a late 20th-century nerve. Gaskell is not kind to this stepmum and nor is the film. Its opening image was of Molly examining a caterpillar as it devoured a lettuce leaf. Thereafter, every time Hyacinth appeared she was illicitly eating something. This woman, we thought, associating the images, is a worm and a social omnivore to boot. That said, she hadn't a chance with Hyacinth as her first name. Unsublime in 1866, after 45 episodes of Keeping up Appearances, it is now ridiculous.

Should the first episode have left you, nevertheless, underwhelmed, Sir Christopher's guests and I can assure you that the story picks up pace. By the third episode it has become almost painfully intimate. But my solution to the much-decried scheduling clash? Record Wives and Daughters or wait for its Saturday repeat. Devour Twist immediately.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser