Monday, January 31, 2011

The Pallisers

The Pallisers (1974) is a revered BBC adaptation from the early 1970s, the era of other classic series such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and Elizabeth R (1971). It is based on the six Palliser novels (1864 - 1879) of Anthony Trollope, plus an episode from his The Small House At Allington (1864).

Trollope's Palliser novels are a rich, complex portrait of high-Victorian politics and society as seen through the intertwining lives of an ever-shifting ensemble of characters. Chief among them are Plantagenet Palliser, a rising politician and heir to the Duke of Omnium; Lady Glencora, who reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage with Palliser, but who loves another man, Burgo Fitzgerald; and Phineas Finn, a naïve and idealistic young man who over the course of two of the novels undergoes a political and sentimental education.

We've just finished reading (aloud!) the first novel in the series, Can You Forgive Her?, and thought that we'd enjoy Simon Raven's highly-regarded 26-part BBC series. After all, we love the BBC adaptations of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1994) and of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Persuasion (1995).

But almost immediately The Pallisers goes wrong—horribly wrong. Our first surprise was that, like Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, it was shot on video, which makes even the gorgeous settings and costumes look flat and cheap. But that would be a minor annoyance if the casting and Raven's script weren't so badly off.

Trollope writes of Plantagenet Palliser at his first appearance in The Small House At Allington: "He was about five-and-twenty years of age...dressed very quietly, never changing the colour or form of his garments; and in society was quiet, reserved, and very often silent. He was tall, slight, and not ill-looking..." [1] His youth is highly significant; one of the recurring issues in Can You Forgive Her? is Palliser's relative inexperience in comparison to the other men of power with whom he is vying for the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Unfortunately the actor portraying him, Philip Latham, was 45 at the time the series was filmed, and if anything looks older. This is just one example of the persistent miscasting in The Pallisers.

The episode from The Small House At Allington that is included in the first episode of the series is Plantagenet's flirtation with the married Lady Dumbello. She is very beautiful and (thanks to her marriage) very rich, but, as her name might suggest, not especially vivacious or witty. One of Trollope's jokes is that these two "reserved" and "undemonstrative" people, who can hardly bring themselves to utter more than a few polite banalities to each other, apparently contemplate having an affair.

However, in the extended opening scene of The Pallisers, a garden party, Palliser and Lady Dumbello are hardly reserved or undemonstrative. We see them move away together from the rest of the guests and, in a shaded nook, speak animatedly to each other about the financial issues facing the nation (a subject about which Trollope's Lady Dumbello would be unlikely—or unable—to carry on a conversation). Here there's another error of casting, or direction. Lady Dumbello is portrayed with a very thick upper-class accent (so clipped and mumbled we could hardly understand what she was saying). In Trollope's novel, however, before she became Lady Dumbello she was Griselda Grantly, the daughter of a country priest—someone unlikely to have such an upper-crust accent. In fact, perhaps it is Lady Dumbello's anxiety about revealing her middle-class origins that makes her so reticent in company. Trollope also writes that "she was a lady still very young, having as yet been little more than two years married." [2] So Lady Dumbello is likely to be in her early 20s; Rachel Herbert, the actress who portrays her, looks to be in her mid-30s, and (not to be unkind) does not have the sort of looks that would have all of society competing for her favor, as does Trollope's Lady Dumbello.

Yet another example of miscasting: Lady Glencora M'Cluskie "has only been out a few months," as we are told by one of the characters in The Pallisers, placing her in her late teens. The actress portraying her, Susan Hampshire, was 37, and even though she looks younger than her age is still far too old. Plus, Raven has her behaving far too brazenly with her swain Burgo Fitzgerald. Lady Glencora is flirtatious, but would hardly kiss her partner openly on the dance floor before all her family and acquaintances—no young woman of her class, situation and era would.

As for Burgo Fitzgerald: "He was one of those young men with dark hair and blue eyes,—who wear no beard, and are certainly among the handsomest of all God's creatures. No more handsome man than Burgo Fitzgerald lived in his days; and this merit at any rate was his,—that he thought nothing of his own beauty." [3] Barry Justice, who plays Burgo, has light brown hair and brown eyes. I mean no disrespect, and I am not the most reliable judge of men's looks, but I would not say that no more handsome man than Barry Justice lived in his days, even if those days were the mid-70s. (You can judge for yourself to the right; images "borrowed" from Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Too.)

The travesty continues: George Vavasor is not only (of course!) too old (Trollope says that he is "a year or two over thirty," while the actor Gary Watson looks to be well over forty)—he has no facial scar! Trollope: "one side of his face been dreadfully scarred by a cicatrice, which in healing, had left a dark indented line down from his left eye to his lower jaw. That black ravine running through his cheek was certainly ugly. On some occasions, when he was angry or disappointed, it was very hideous; for he would so contort his face that the scar would, as it were, stretch itself out, revealing all its horrors, and his countenance would become all scar." [4]

Finally, there's Dolly Longestaffe, a man apparently in late middle age who rather too explicitly explains all the Palliser characters and their connections to George Vavasor (and, of course, to us—he's a bit too obviously the screenwriter's stand-in). The only problem is that Dolly Longestaffe is not even a character in the first five Palliser novels. He doesn't appear until the final book, The Duke's Children (1879), after being introduced in the (non-Palliser) The Way We Live Now (1875). In The Way We Live Now Dolly is a frivolous man who is somewhere between his late twenties and mid-thirties; if the action in the first episode of The Pallisers is taking place ten years earlier, Dolly is twice as old as he should be (the actor Donald Pickering was in his forties, and is made up to look even older).

All this occurs in the first ten minutes of the first episode! Alas, that is all of that episode, or of any episode of The Pallisers, that we will ever see. Those who report enjoying the series must either have never read Trollope, or are better able than we are to block out what they remember of the books. Instead, we'll be returning to the pleasures of Trollope's writing, read aloud.

Update 3 Feb 2011: The Duke's garden party, which I had assumed was an invention of The Pallisers screenwriter Simon Raven, is based on an important scene in Trollope—but one that occurs towards the end of the second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn (1867). It's a brilliant scene, in which the rising politician Phineas Finn encounters in turn each of the three women (the unhappily married Lady Laura Kennedy, the unhappily engaged Violet Effingham, and the unhappily dis-engaged Madame Max Goesler) who represent his past, present, and future marital aspirations.

But Raven almost throws away this scene. He uses it as a means of introducing several of the major characters, and it is a spectacular set-piece. But because the characters have not yet been laboriously explained to us by Dolly Longestaffe, their actions and relationships don't yet carry any emotional weight. It's another missed opportunity; the scene would have been far more effective in its true place in the saga.

Update 26 May 2012: You can read more of my thoughts on Trollope's Palliser novels in my post A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels.


1. The Small House At Allington, Ch. XXIII.
2. The Small House At Allington, Ch. XVII.
3. Can You Forgive Her?, Ch. XVIII.
4. Can You Forgive Her?, Ch. IV