Rarely has a classic work of literature been adapted for television so well. This is a marvellous retelling of William Thackeray's 19th century novel, successful in almost every possible way. Purists may quibble that any attempt to adapt this sprawling bane of literature students' lives will always be doomed to failure simply because of the sheer size of it. But what makes this so good, particularly for those familiar with the novel, are two things: its total commitment to the spirit of 'Vanity Fair', and joyously perfect casting and acting.
As readers of VF will know, the narrator plays a very important part in the book. His sly comments on the 'puppets' (as he often refers to the characters) that perform in his 'play' are frequently funny, exciting and always engaging. If VF is indeed 'a novel without a hero', it is no less engrossing for it. For the story is literally a Fair: characters come and go as the narrator sees fit while we the audience look on with amusement. We start with both Becky Sharp (the main character but not the traditional heroine as Thackeray's contemporary audience would have expected) and Amelia Sedley, and we follow their fortunes and interaction with other characters over some twenty or thirty years. Characters come, characters go; some die, some are born. But nearly always the narrator is there to invite us to feel something towards them: sympathy, repulsion, anger, love. And though he is notable by his absence in the book's most powerful scenes, he will return shortly to talk about something else that another character is getting up to. This is where this adaptation nails the spirit of VF so precisely; it never forgets that these characters are puppets in a play, performing for our entertainment. Traditional bandstand music plays over scenes to reinforce this impression. The comedy elements make us laugh (Jos Sedley and his enormous, well-fed behind trying to mount a horse or carriage), the battle scenes are visceral, the dramatic scenes are engrossing. And the sly comments of the narrator are subtly retained in bizarre camera shots: the fat pig snuffling outside Queen's Crawley, or the beggar playing 'Rule Britannia' with his little bells as the soldiers march off to fight the Battle of Waterloo.
But this would have been for nought if the casting had not been spot on. Natasha Little IS Becky Sharp. Beautiful, alluring, charming, witty, cunning, deceptive and manipulative, she is every man's dream on the outside (I fell in love with her, and I can see all she is getting up to!). One look from her eyes is all that is required to get her climbing the social ladder, which ultimately is all that she wants. Frances Grey is also perfect as Amelia; not as beautiful as Becky, but still pleasant, sweet and kind-hearted, and forever doting on George Osborne. Tom Ward as Osborne was not what I was expecting, yet he got it right: a dashing English officer, strikingly handsome, and not totally devoid of morals, but very easily succumbs to his vanity and pride. Philip Glenister as the only genuinely heroic character in the book (though still not without faults), Dobbin, again is not how I pictured the character, but again nails it perfectly: slightly clumsy, socially awkward, but clear thinking, level-headed and always ready to do the right thing. The rest of the cast play their respective grotesques with equal perfection and relish - to single out each and every one is impossible, though all deserve it.
As a lover of this book, I congratulate all on a job well done. I cannot comment on how someone who has not read VF will like this series, but I can understand that they may be a little bewildered by it all: the occasional dizzy camerawork and loud brass band music. So long as you understand that we are the audience of a colourful, vibrant fair populated by a rich assortment of people, all with faults, all with redeeming features (however materialistic they might be), then I think you should derive great pleasure from it, because more than anything, this is great fun.
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