This series is an excellent adaptation of Hamilton's trilogy of novellas and is a beautiful evocation of the seedier side of London in the early Nineteen Thirties.
The three books (The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement) were published several years apart and centre on three characters who meet in a pub: Bob, an aspiring novelist, Jenny, a prostitute on whom he squanders his meagre savings, and Ella, who is in love with Bob while being pursued by an ageing suitor.
The story is essentially told three times, each from a different perspective, and this production was originally broadcast as three separate plays. However, the DVD offers the alternative of viewing it as a single narrative and this is the option I would recommend.
It is thoroughly engrossing, but there can be no pretence that it makes for easy viewing. It is unremittingly bleak and at the end there is only the faintest hint of hope for any of the characters.
The great merit of the books was their accuracy as reportage and this is fully realised in this production. It is filmed in a washed-out near monochrome and the production design is a marvel of authenticity achieved on a tiny budget. The playing (especially by the leads, Bryan Dick, Zoe Tapper and Sally Hawkins) is uniformly good. Their performances seem completely in keeping with the time and place without mimicking the acting style of the era.
For me, this series doesn't fully capture the flavour of the books, but that is not necessarily a criticism.
The Midnight Bell, in particular, was highly autobiographical, being closely based on Hamilton's own relationship with a prostitute, Lily. This book, and The Siege of Pleasure, have an obsessive, confessional quality that is largely missing here.
In The Midnight Bell we don't get the same sense of just how self-willed Bob's disastrous relationship with Jenny really is. In the book, Jenny is even less calculating than she appears here. She never pretends to have any affection for Bob and makes only the faintest attempt to get her hands on his savings. She is simply bemused when he keeps popping up to shower money on her. Bob understands this but cannot help himself. Ultimately, his behaviour is much more consciously self-destructive than in this production.
Similarly, we get a much weaker sense of the importance of alcohol in the novel. Bob's increased drinking is shown but not emphasised.
With hindsight, we can see that The Midnight Bell is not merely documenting Hamilton's relationship with Lily, but also the origins of his much more lasting relationship with alcohol. Bob is not an alcoholic (Hamilton probably wasn't, at that stage) but the warning signs are there.
The role of alcohol becomes much clearer in the second book, The Siege of Pleasure. Its centrepiece is a lengthy passage depicting with meticulous accuracy and loving detail the process of Jenny getting drunk for the first time - and how much she enjoys it. Here, we see this happening but cannot share the effect it is having on Jenny. As a result we lose the subtext of the book. Objectively, it is showing how Jenny's seduction is the first step on her road to prostitution, but we sense that it is drink that is the real cause of her fall, even if Hamilton is not explicit about it.
In these books, alcohol is the love that dared not speak its name.
From this perspective, Bob and Jenny are not separate characters, with their own personal destinies, so much as aspects of Hamilton. This makes for an uncomfortable read. Rather than being fiction, the books feel like extracts from his private diary, recording his own lacerating self-reproaches, so the reader feels like a voyeur. Moreover, there is something masochistic about Hamilton's wallowing in ruin and degradation. It is only in The Plains of Cement that he rises above this neurotic self-absorption and achieves a degree of objectivity that redeems the whole trilogy.
No adaptation of Hamilton, however faithful it tries to be, can adopt his perspective. Inevitably, it will interpret the stories, rather than reproduce them. But this is no bad thing. We lose some of the immediacy that we get from the sense humiliation and self-loathing that infuse the books (and re-emerges even more strongly in The West Pier and Hangover Square) but in downplaying their more obsessive aspect it objectifies and generalises the issues that he raises.
Cut loose from Hamilton's very personal preoccupations, the characters now have autonomous lives of their own and we can even believe that there might be some hope for them. Their futures may not be not very promising, but they are no longer completely trapped by the fatalism of Hamilton's self-castigating nightmare.
At the same time, stripping away the most obsessive elements of the books gives us an unobstructed view of the world he has so faithfully documented and it proves to be both convincing and compelling. If Art is about finding the universal in the particular then this drama is arguably more successful than the books on which it is based. It certainly feels like a more balanced piece of work.
This version of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky may not have the same power as Hamilton's books, but it is mesmerising in its own right. At times it is hard to watch, but it is still well worth spending three hours of your time on it.
PS: For a more detailed account of the merits of this production read the three reviews above.
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