Shiny Shelf

He Knew He Was Right

By Jim Smith on 20 April 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

It’s unusual for there to be a TV adaptation of a nineteenth century novel which I haven’t already read. I don’t make this as some kind of boast, by the way. ┬áIndeed I think it’s a sad commentary on the obvious choices made both by producers of ‘Classic Serial’ type dramas when choosing what to make and myself when choosing what to read.

I haven’t read any Trollope as it happens – not even ‘The Pallisers’ – and ‘He Knew Was Right’ (serialised October 1868 – May 1869, published in book form May 1869) is far from typical of the author’s work. Or at least that’s what Andrew Davies says in this series press notes. I wouldn’t know of course, what with not having read it.

Yes – this adaptation comes from Andrew Davies. The King of the lit-to-script transition, the man responsible for such literary homages as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and such acts of hack novelist redemption as ‘The Final Cut’. Andrew ‘A Very Peculiar Practice’ Davies the man responsible for screenwriting more hours of good television over the last twenty years than most of the rest of the writers’ guild put together. So, bearing in mind that I’ve no knowledge of the source material at all, what has he done here?

Davies’ first two scripts aren’t so much an attack on the rules and assumptions of Victorian society – and the unthinking machismo, nay misogyny, that governed them – as such a clear demonstration of their unfairness and absurdity that the viewer finds themselves attacking them out loud to anyone who will listen. This seems to be Davies’ (and one assumes Trollope’s) take on the essential plot of ‘Othello’. The difference is that the writer’s attention is fixed firmly on the social implications for those on the receiving end of a man’s jealous insanity rather than the jealous man’s own mental collapse. Appropriately (for something which is society-based rather derived from passion plays) this story’s protagonist is correspondingly his own Iago.

Louie Trevellyn (Oliver Dimsdale) has married the very beautiful and spirited Emily (Laura Fraser) who is the daughter of British colonial governor (Geoffrey Palmer! Huzzah!) and unused to the ‘moral structure’ of nineteenth century England. After several years of deliriously happy marriage Louie develops the deep-seated, irrational belief that Emily is engaging in an extra-marital affair with Colonel Osbourne (Bill Nighy) an old friend of her father’s whom Mrs Trevellyn has known since she was a child (indeed he is one of her Godfathers). This slowly begins to govern all of his actions and places his wife in a position where it is quite simply impossible for her to do anything without further inflaming her husband’s near-psychotic behaviour. Eventually he sends her away.

Davies somehow finds much comedy in what is an entirely saddening narrative – and manages to do so without rendering its essence ridiculous. Little comments from the array of spinster sisters (including the rather attractive Amy Marston) and maiden aunts (including a superb Anna Massey) litter the story and lighten it from moment to moment and there are occasional sequences which, I fancy, were intended to be taken as solemn in the novel but which become slightly comic due to the vast differences between the characters’ mores and ours.

The series is blessed with a luxurious production style, a sedate pace and numerous fine and detailed performances from its large and distinguished cast. Fraser is compelling in her injured innocence and conveys her incomprehension of her husband’s crassness and stupidity, and her determination not to be crushed, very well. Nighy combines being a comedy fop, an avaricious old letch and a genuinely offended innocent party with consummate skill. It is entirely unclear from the transmitted material whether Oliver Dimsdale’s wet, ineffectual, pathetic and thoroughly paranoid Louis is a brilliant character performance or a result of the actor’s inability (cf his Shelley in ‘Byron’) to be anything else. It doesn’t matter of course, if the latter it’s simply good casting. Massey – in small role – excels at transforming her character from a reactionary old harridan to a determined crusader for truth while making clear that these two personality traits are merely parts of a larger whole.

So, no complaints at all then, except for vague irritation one always feels when Americans (either fictional or factual) insist on pretending that nineteenth century America was even vaguely progressive, democratic or fair. Oh, that and a) the fact that Patsy Palmer is rubbish even in a small role and b) the (now usual) transmission of the second episode immediately after the first on the digital only BBC4. This is distinctly to my own personal advantage, you understand, but I can’t bear how it bothers others so.

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