Wednesday, 6 January 2016

War, peace and halcyon days

1975. What a year. The longest, hottest summer I remember in England. I was between two phases of my existence and living at my grandparents’ house – rather overstaying my welcome, I’m ashamed to admit – but finding the time extraordinarily comforting and restful.

The BBC was running an adaptation of War and Peace on television and, in a time before DVDs or catchup, you just had to tune in each week if you wanted to know what was happening. I couldn’t wait in suspense a whole week at a time, so I borrowed my grandmother’s copy of the novel, an Everyman edition in battered red cloth covers which I’ve since inherited. I lay in the back garden surrounded by the vivid green of a lawn I did everything I could to avoid mowing, soaking in the sun while immersed in an extraordinary novel.

Last weekend, the BBC started a new serialisation. I had to watch it, if only out of nostalgia for that time four decades ago. But it left me less than fully satisfied. So I got hold of the Audible version and started listening to it, on the way to and from work, and during my lunch hour, on my phone.

On Audible, the book lasts some 61 hours. The BBC series covers six one-hour episodes. To say that it fails to do the novel justice would be to fall far short of the truth of the travesty if makes of the Tolstoy. It just hasn’t given itself the space to do otherwise. The worst aspect of it? The book presents us with a panoply of characters which is bewildering enough even when they appear to us over a number of chapters. In the telescoped timescale of the series, they’re just dumped on us in a great rush of confusion. It put me in mind of the rather cruel words of the Mossad spy genius Kurtz, in John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl. Talking about how two young women could switch identities in an airport, he explains:

“… they go to the ladies’ room, they switch tickets … they switch passports too. With girls, that’s no problem. Make up – wigs – … when you dig down, all pretty girls are the same.”

Without giving way to quite that degree of misogyny, I have to admit that the TV series did have something of that effect on me. The BBC provided a large number of pretty young women actors, but that just left me wondering who they all were. Was that one Julie Kuragin? Lise Meinen? Hélène Kuragin? Or even, I’m ashamed to admit, the key figure Natasha Rostova herself? I had only a hazy idea. And, to be honest, that did make following a complex plot a trifle difficult.

The 2016 BBC version of War and Peace.
Lots of lovely people. But which one is which?
Still, who cares? It’s splendid spectacle. And it’s spurred me to re-read the book, and I really mean read as well as listen: so that I can keep on going at home, I’ve downloaded the Kindle version too, for the princely sum of £0.00. 

Besides, series has reminded me of an idyllic time in my youth. How much more can I reasonably demand of the BBC?

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