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Fascinating Trawl Through the BBC Archives to Find Bronte Adaptations
Together with Dickens and Jane Austen, the Brontes have been one of the most popular eighteenth and nineteenth century subjects for adaptation on television. This fascinating compilation offered a series of extracts from classic serials, documentaries and other programs within the BBC archives.
It began with an adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS from 1956, starring Shakespearean actor Daphne Slater. Although the filming might seem clunky now, this version kept the focus on character rather than ambiance, paying particular attention to the central romance between Heathcliff and Cathy. Likewise the 1962 version of the same novel with Claire Bloom and Keith Michell, which was heavily influenced by William Wyler's romantic cinema retelling of the story from 1939.
By the late Sixties attitudes had changed: the 1967 version, providing a first major starring role for Ian McShane, brought out the primeval elements: Heathcliff was no longer heroic, but someone fundamentally ill-educated fighting against genteel nineteenth century conventions; a historical rehearsal of similar socio- cultural struggles happening in Britain at that time.
Adaptations have always taken their inspiration from prevailing conditions: the late Nineties version of THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL starring Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens concentrated in particular on the struggles for gender identity. As with many classic adaptations at that time, the filming style changed too: productions were no longer shot on videotape but presented as full- scale films with budgets to match. Adaptations appeared less frequently, but they were more lavish, and advertised as major televisual events. The 1995 version of Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (the one where Colin Firth came out of a river with a wet undershirt) had a lot to do with this change of approach.
Like many BBC compilations, this one adopted a chronological approach implying that more recent adaptations were somehow 'better' than the older versions, simply due to the improvement in filming technologies. This is a contentious statement - especially for viewers interested in characters rather than pretty-pretty sets and costumes - but as a whole this program offered a fascinating insight into how television has treated the Brontes over half a century.
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