Shiny Shelf

The Private Life of Samuel Pepys

By Eddie Robson on 17 December 2003

Something of an odd decision to screen this one-off drama so soon after BBC1’s ‘Charles II: The Power and the Passion’, which covered a lot of the same historical period. In terms of budget it can’t help but compare unfavourably: whereas ‘Charles II’ afforded an impressive recreation of the Great Fire of London, ‘The Private Life of Samuel Pepys’ gives us a close-up on the face of Pepys (Steve Coogan) as he looks up at the fire and declares, ‘The whole of London is ablaze!’ He then turns to camera and adds, ‘You’ll have to take my word for it.’

Pepys frequently breaks the fourth wall in this way – an appropriate device to characterise a man whose diaries provide one of the most intimate accounts of any period – but unfortunately he seldom does so in such an amusing manner. This is a worthy project, since (as far as I can tell) it’s the first TV or film account of the life of Samuel Pepys – an interesting figure, recently hailed as ‘the world’s first blogger’ by tedious cretins who can’t project themselves into any situation that doesn’t exist in the present moment. He was a DIARIST, you fools. Diaries are PRIVATE; weblogs are PUBLIC. For this reason I’m rather glad that this production has been dubbed as Pepys’ ‘Private Life’.

It’s a rather confused teleplay, however, seemingly unsure whether it should aim for drama or comedy (or at least, I was left unsure of where it was aiming). As drama, it falls down because it lacks sufficient depth: it distils one of the longest works in English literature into an hour and fails to find the narrative thread to draw us through. Perhaps there isn’t one: this is, after all, the story of a life and readers have mainly enjoyed Pepys’ diaries for the incidental details, so the work would perhaps be better formatted as a kind of soap opera.

On the other hand, as a comedy it simply isn’t funny enough. A very good scene halfway through in which Pepys incompetently tries to establish whether his wife is having an affair demonstrates the potential of the subject matter, sadly unfulfilled. More often the script tries to slip the humour in subtly and falls flat, with Coogan displaying a little too much caution. A broader approach, using the compression of the diaries to make the story seem frenetic rather than rushed, might have been more effective.

Given the heightened atmosphere of the Restoration, this could have been presented as a comedy without sacrificing the piece’s fidelity to its source. Plenty of contemporary TV drama and comedy is funny without seeming contrived: the writer of ‘Private Life’, Guy Jenkin, carried it off when he used to write ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’. There’s no reason why this can’t be achieved in a historical piece, since you don’t have to use the ‘Blackadder’/'Shakespeare in Love’ method of applying contemporary logic to a historical situation in order to make it funny.

Nevertheless, this is all just speculation: it’s easy for me to sit here and say ‘You didn’t want to adapt the complete nine-volume diary of Samuel Pepys spanning one of the most significant decades in British history like that, you wanted to do it like this…’ but I wouldn’t want to try it myself.

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By Eddie Robson

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