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'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame'? Gringoire steals this show

Author: DrMMGilchrist ( from Hull
2 July 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've just got this 1976 BBC adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' on disc from the Netherlands, (why no UK release?), and I now remember that I saw it on TV when I was about 11. It's a solid, faithful adaptation: studio-bound, so more like a stage production, with elegantly inventive sets reminiscent of the stylised architecture you see in manuscript illuminations. Some of the extras, especially the Truands, are pure Villon or Bosch. It also gets full marks from me for using the glorious 'Kyrie' from Guillaume de Machaut's 'Messe de Notre Dame' at the beginning (I am a mediæval music fan!). It follows the book closely, although Quasimodo's fate is changed, and, as so often (bar the 1923 film and the 1966 BBC version), Pâquette and her story are dropped.

It has the best Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo yet (Christopher Gable and David Rintoul respectively). Indeed, this version could be retitled 'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame', since Gringoire (my second-favourite character) gets most of his best scenes and dialogue, including the scene where Claude, his former tutor, finds him working as a street entertainer! Warren Clarke is a good Quasimodo: his trial is straight from the book. It must always be remembered that, despite the popular English title, he is *not* the main character: English-language adaptations tend to over-emphasise his role. I don't understand the script's claim that he would be hanged: it's not suggested in the novel, and more probably he would be rewarded for saving the cathedral from the Truands. The spoilt young Fleur-de-Lys (Hetty Baynes) and playboy soldier Phœbus (Richard Morant) are also splendidly played, and eminently slappable. As in the book, one becomes infuriated with Esméralda for remaining fixated on the latter, even to death. Weaknesses? Unfortunately, these are in leading roles: Esméralda and Claude.

Michelle Newell's Esméralda is young, pretty and innocent enough, but, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, her dancing would *not* make an Archdeacon kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She wears far too many clothes,(1970s hippie dress), and her dancing would make no-one's pulse race (probably not even her own). Why didn't they use Gable as choreographer, since he was in the cast? (He later oversaw a full-length ballet of 'Notre Dame' as Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet Theatre.) Her goat Djali, however, is an adorable fluffy white kid with a pink nose.

Kenneth Haigh is miscast as Claude, although he tries hard in the brothel scene, watching jealously as Phœbus seduces Esméralda. However, he lacks the required physical presence and intensity (book-Claude is tall, swarthy, lean and broad-shouldered, with passionate eyes). Like all but the 1966 BBC and 1996 ballet portrayals, he is at least a decade too old to play a young man of 35-36. We only get a truncated version of 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza', without its most harrowing moments: no version I've seen to date has included him admitting to stabbing himself, let alone baring his chest to show her the wounds. The chapter 'Fever' is omitted entirely, because in this version, he's present during Esméralda's rescue. Nor do we get the emotional build-up to the 'Porte Rouge' scene, so it comes out of the blue, without his feverish delirium (his wounds are infected) and desperate pleading; without the hideous absurdity of a semi-somnambulistic, sexually ignorant virgin attempting rape. (One doubts he even knows *what to do*, physically.) All in all, it's a curiously passionless portrayal of a passion-racked character: even at the end, he seems far too calm and sane, not physically and mentally ill as in the book. Claude is the novel's tragic hero: Romantic, yet proto-Dostoevskian; a brilliant young intellectual, tortured by desire and tearing the world down around him in crime and madness as he destroys himself and all he loves. For once, I'd like to see an adaptation that really put his psychological struggle centre-stage.

So I recommend this production heartily, with a few reservations. Most adaptations of the novel are dominated by one or other of the main characters: this is definitely Pierre Gringoire's show, and he runs away with it (as well as with the goat)!

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