An Eyre of intelligence

The creative team rises to the challenge of Brontë's novel, with pleasing results

<strong>Jane Eyr

"You are an intelligent, thinking woman," Rochester tells Jane Eyre when he reprimands her for asking permission to peruse the books in his library at Thornfield Hall. The challenge to which the director Susanna White and her adaptor, Sandy Welch, have chosen to rise is to make an intelligent, thinking Jane Eyre (Sundays, 9pm). To be avoided, on the one side, is the Scylla of the OTT Gothic novel: everyone knows there is a madwoman in Rochester's attic, but this adaptation reminds us that there are monsters on Jane's sketch pad, too. On the other side lies the Charybdis of a sloppy romance: Rochester, the Byronic owner of Thornfield, is the prototype for every tall, dark and smirking nob Barbara Cartland ever wrote about. But navigate between the two, and you discover the first great English Bildungsroman in which hero and heroine are given a sentimental education.

Let no one tell you this novel lacks absurdities. Rochester at one stage turns up in drag, disguised as a gypsy fortune-teller. On the page, you have Jane's voice to make credible the incredible. On television, you rely on your actors. White has cast perfectly. Jane is played by Ruth Wilson, an unknown 24-year-old fresh out of drama school. There is not a reaction shot in which she does not look intelligent, and not a line she delivers that does not suggest the thinking behind it. Her Donald Duck mouth and heavy eyebrows give her face too much character for beauty, yet any intelligent man might fall for it (particularly if the alternative is Blanche's porcelain mask). "That look," Rochester says. "No judgement, no pity. That look would pry secrets from the darkest souls." He says it with anticipation.

Toby Stephens, James Bond's last known adversary and a convincing Tony Armstrong-Jones in 2005 in The Queen's Sister, at last gets a chance to play a villain with a soul worth saving. His Rochester is in love with his own suffering, in awe of his own decadence. He calls Jane a witch, but it is his own dark past that has bewitched him. Yet, as Mrs Fairfax says, the master is not without humour. Without giving him a heart of gold, Stephens lets you know that, while Rochester's instinct is to laugh at everyone, his ambition is to find someone to laugh with. In a reversal of the romantic stereotype, Rochester loves Jane because she is that someone. Asked if she finds him attractive, Jane wins a chuckle from him and us by saying "No" and then adding that he is not repellent either.

Stephens and Wilson need to be good because this is no BBC Bleak House (on which White also worked). There is no long list of character actors. Tara Fitzgerald, as the infant Jane's unloving aunt, is no sooner seen than gone. Richard McCabe stands out as vindictive Mr Brocklehurst, headmaster of Lowood School - but Eyre's schooldays are done with in ten minutes. Her friendship with Helen Burns is disposed of in half that time. Pam Ferris as Grace Poole, keeper of the first Mrs R in the north tower, is seen mainly bustling down corridors.

These excepted, every long shot is a composition of beauty. Most tell a story, too. The finger of God points down from a mural at a young Eyre, framed for lying. Her fellow pupils, dressed identically in white caps, are like clones. Respectable society is as uniform as the wooden coffins in which Helen Burns's fellow victims of consumption are carried off.

The Derbyshire countryside has rarely looked so consistently cold and grey, either. Out of its mists, to confront Jane for the first time, rides Rochester: black hair, black cape and black stallion. But once at Thornfield, he becomes associated with warmth: orange hues lick his face at the fireside, the sun illuminates him on a picnic and, at the end of episode one, his bed is engulfed in flames. The question Jane will have to answer is whether the fire within is, or is not, hellish.

The conceit of the book is that while Rochester believes Eyre, in her sinless youth, to be in need of a sentimental education into life's horrors, it is he who ends up taught a lesson in humanity by her. His blinding - the symbolic castration that brings Jane back to him - is the creepiest moment in the book, not to mention the most absurd. I hope this magical adaptation has the sorcery to make us accept it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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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 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide