Pumping up the sex

Television - Andrew Billen wonders if Kingsley Amis provides enough substance for a BBC drama

The fascination of costume drama lies in appreciating the humanity that lies beneath the corsetry. The human dilemma, the great productions say to us, remains eternal; only the manners through which it is played out have changed. Dickens will remain relevant as long as poverty and class divisions remain. Jane Austen still speaks universally acknowledged truths about marriage. Mrs Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, which the BBC dramatised this time last year, proved acutely relevant in its account of blood ties being scissored by step-parentage.

However, the ethical puzzle at the heart of Take a Girl Like You (Sunday evenings, BBC1) no longer exists. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no girls like Jenny Bunn any more. Jenny arrives in a southern town in 1959, her puritanical northern honour intact. Her virginity is much tried by all who meet her. The "will she-won't she?" is whether Jenny will make it to the altar a virgin. The modern viewer wonders what her problem was. Pre-pill, pre-coil, pre-feminism, the England recalled by Take a Girl Like You is more remote than the eras of Napoleon or Victoria.

Andrew Davies's three-part adaptation of Kingsley Amis's 1960 novel throws in little shafts of perspective to help us out. "Because that's how it was back then with nice girls," explains the hero, Patrick Standish, in a voice-over, yet it is not clear from where he is addressing us. (If one takes Patrick to be a version of Amis, it would be from the grave.)

Through the sets and costumes of the production designer Donal Woods, the period certainly looks right, down to the tins in the grocer's shop window, the hard lavatory paper and the haddock cooked to a curve provided by Jenny's landlady. In a private joke against the conventions of period drama, Davies began the first episode with a steam-train journey. The only thing that is out of keeping is the sunshine in which everything is bathed. The director, Nick Hurran, is asking that we put behind us the monochrome, social-realist films of the period and reconsider 1959 as the gateway to Technicolor. (The 1970 Eastmancolor film of the novel, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Hayley Mills, is now forgotten.)

The performances are every bit as good as this hallowed annual slot demands. Sienna Guillory, whom I have not seen before, dares to turn Jenny, "a slender girl with very dark colouring", into a dazzling blonde. Her northern vowels manage the considerable feat of making her seem neither a prig nor a prick-tease. Rupert Graves plays a blinder as the hero Patrick Standish: raffish, fluent, with a poet's sex drive but, behind his mean little mouth, there is something saturnine and unforgiving, too - a recklessness that suggests not only the killer instinct, but also a death wish. His rivals for Jenny - the hapless virginal Scot Graham McClintoch (Ian Driver) and the middle-aged roue Julian Ormerod (Hugh Bonneville) - are also perfectly cast. And if Robert Daws hams it up as the dentally challenged socialist landlord Dick, the blame lies with the director and writer, because, when allowed to act small, Daws is very funny indeed.

Two laws of Davies adaptations are to pump up the sex and to exaggerate. Given that the novel is about sex, one can hardly complain about him adhering to the first of these. You do feel the comedy has been turned up a bit too far, however, when you see Dick falling over in the background of a scene at a shooting party which, in the book, he doesn't even attend. Nor can Davies resist improving on Ormerod's suggestion to Jenny that she is "the right girl for some figure like me to set up in a handy maisonette in the wen". "Look," he says to her in the TV version, "if you ever fancy becoming a kept woman in Maida Vale, chocs, shows, that sort of thing . . ." I'm not complaining. I'm just saying.

The real problems are not with the adaptation, but with the book itself. One need not believe Amis to be the misogynist of myth to wish that there was more to Jenny than her hymen, or that he had provided her with speeches that demonstrated a grasp of more than the politics of sex. Patrick is not meant to be admirable - there is too much of his self-hating creator in him - but it becomes ever harder to empathise with him. Davies gives Jenny a line applauding Patrick for both liking girls and listening to them. But he is placing a thumb on the scales. Amis makes clear that Patrick despises women's minds: "Why aren't they interested in anything? [. . .] I sometimes think I'll marry the first woman I meet who can sit through three minutes of a gramophone record and listen to it. One that's any good, I mean."

Yet we are still meant to see him, as much as Lucky Jim, as a revolutionary who thinks that all rules, like the bursar's parking restrictions at the school where he teaches, are guilty until proved innocent. Jenny's virginity is simply another barricade that must fall come the revolution. It is frustrating to watch Jenny lacking the vocabulary to oppose this line of male reasoning - a vocabulary that, had she been born ten years later, she would have possessed. I wonder if, in the end, Take a Girl Like You will bear the weight of the production values that the BBC has invested in it. As a seasonal gift from Auntie, it is interesting, but not quite what one would have chosen for one's self.

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 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image