Dennis Potter's 1978 Television Adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge"

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

decorated initial 'A' s the most recent film adaptation of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Claim (2001), well illustrates, the 1886 novel that focuses--unlike most of Hardy's fiction--on a "Man of Character" continues to engage the minds of each successive generation, both as text and as cinematic adaptation. The first cinematic adaptation--Sidney Morgan's 1921, 65-minute silent film made with the author's cošperation in Steyning, Sussex, and "on location" in and around Dorchester--actually predates the first dramatic adaptation, namely the professional production starring Lyn Harding as Michael Henchard that opened at the Barnes Theatre, Greater London, on 8 September 1926. The Progress Company's attempting to film the story while governed by a February 1921 contract stipulating that there should be "No alteration or adaptation such as to burlesque or otherwise misrepresent the general character of the novel" (Letters 6: 72) must have been awkward, given Hardy's insistence on a measure of authorial control [see note at end of essay].

The next year, Joseph Warren Beach in The Technique of Thomas Hardy likened the narrative style of The Mayor of Casterbridge to that of movies, focusing on the story's film-like use of coincidence, overheard conversation, direct dialogue, and external conflicts, noting the novel's "large provision of scenes of violent and surprising action making their appeal directly to the sense of sight" (Ch. 2). Despite what Beach regards as the cinematic aspects of Hardy's novel--its "startling pictures full of movement, constantly shifting, and never failing in excitement and variety" (Ch. 5), the first "talkie" based on The Mayor of Casterbridge is surprisingly recent: the six-part 356 min. B. B. C. 1978 serial, directed by David Giles, who afterwards directed a film adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and starring Alan Bates as the bluff and occasionally irascible Henchard. The serial was popular as high-brow soap-opera on both sides of the Atlantic, being screened by Public Television in the United States and Canada as an offering of Masterpiece Theatre, hosted by that affable Anglo-American broadcast-journalist Alistair Cooke from 3 September through 15 October 1978, and on educational television channels many times since. Inevitably, as one sits down to watch a cinematic adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge, one is immediately faced with special problems the text's flashback poses in terms of visual continuity and integration.

As the recorder and interpreter of the frozen tableaux realised from Hardy's sensation-novel (as it was in serial form before revision for volume release), Barnes had little difficulty in assimilating the story's opening flashback into his pictorial representations of the characters, the settings, and the moments of crisis in each weekly instalment. The actual wife-sale is not shown, possibly because even for the socially-realistic Graphic it smacked too much of the sensational; rather, Barnes focuses on the moment when the young couple encounter the turnip-hoer outside Weydon- Priors. For the twentieth-century screenwriters charged with adaptation of the novel, however, the opening flashback sequence has presented problems in narrative and visual continuity. Each screenwriter and director has found different solutions to problems posed by casting and having to interrupt the flow of the narrative to introduce past events.

The flashback is a narrative device that pre-dates the cinematic era, of course, although it has proven especially useful in such films as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. The first instances of the device occur in Homer's Odyssey, which begins in the present, some twenty years after the start of the Trojan War, and then fills the reader in on events that occurred to the hero between the end of the war and the present through the inset narratives of the hero himself, the Phaeacian bard Demodocus, Nestor, and Menelaus. For modern writers such Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the device poses no particular difficulty since a writer has ample opportunity to prepare the reader for shifts in setting and narrative perspective. Even so long an inset narrative as that in Anne Brontë's 1848 novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which also deals with the highly controversial topic of marital separation) poses no problem for readers because the novelist has adequately prepared them for the flashback which will fully explain the tenant's hidden past. Such disruptions prove more difficult to integrate into the narrative flow of such plays as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and such films as Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries because, although the flashback is fully justified as providing knowledge of antecedent action necessary to the development of theme, character, and plot, the dramatist or screenwriter finds it difficult to transcend the objective point of view in order to signal such a shift.

Since automobile traffic and telephone lines have somewhat altered the face of Hardy's "Casterbridge" (Dorchester), the BBC serial was shot at and near Corfe Castle in Dorset, a painstaking costume- piece that cost the then-unheard-of sum of half-a-million pounds. Because screenwriter Dennis Potter had made the decision to adhere to Hardy's original text as much a possible, early in his work on the production he was compelled to confront the problems posed by retaining the flashback sequence. Hardy text clarifies Michael Henchard's age only at the close of the opening serial episode when in Chapter Two he vows to "avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived." On the contrary, in the film, Henchard grumbles that he was just eighteen when he married, and Susan adds that she has been married to Michael "for a couple of years," so that the film script seems to be making a point of the youthfulness of the couple while the casting gives us mutton dressed as lamb. In 1978, Alan Bates was already 43, and his co-star, Anne Stallybrass, 38. As a young married couple the actor and actress are singularly unconvincing. Their "stale familiarity" (to quote Hardy) is not animated by the aggrieved egocentricity of early adulthood. In the memory sequences, Susan's hair contains no hint of grey, but her face is (unfortunately) identical to that of Susan in the present, whereas the well-dressed, energetic middle-aged furmity-vendor of the flashback is just discernible in the pale, haggard, candle-dripping face of the ill-kempt of her present counterpart. Past and present are also well distinguished by the sunny day on which the wife-sale occurred (as opposed to a gloomier day in the present), and by Potter's device of the finger-post two miles outside of the village of Weydon-Priors which appears firmly upright and freshly white-washed in the past, but dilapidated in the present.

The primitive agricultural prints which constitute the opening credits of the television serial's first part imply a return a simpler age. The unnaturally large hand grasping a sheaf of wheat iconographically represents both the John Barleycorn figure of the rags- to-riches Mayor of Casterbridge as well as the veteran of stage and screen, Alan Bates, associated in the minds of many tv-viewers with the role of Gabriel Oak in the third film version of Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Noted from his first television appearance, in 1959, for the "broodingly lonely and savage" quality of his performance, by 1978 Bates had a considerable number of other film and television credits, often in work that repeated stage performances: A Kind of Loving (1962), The Entertainer (1964), The Fixer (1968), Butley (1972), Impossible Object (1973), Plaintiffs and Defendants and Two Sundays (BBC, 1975), The Collection (tv, 1976). His most memorable pre-Mayor performances, aside from his leading role as Gabriel Oak in FFMC, were in Georgie Girl (1966) and The Three Sisters (1969). By 1978, he had already worked with such cultural icons as Sir Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter, John Schlesinger, John Frankenheimer, and, of course, his co-star in FFMC, Julie Christie. In short, having been seen on television and in some of the most popular British films of the 1960s, Bates's face and manner of acting were already highly familiar to television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. His name's appearing in the opening credits of the 1978 television mini-series The Mayor of Casterbridge must have seemed a guarantee of quality, and certainly ensured that viewers would be treated to a sensitive portrayal of the volatile Hardy protagonist.

The other agricultural plates in the credits were likewise intended to serve as guarantees of quality: the title and "Thomas Hardy" accompany a rainbow and clouds poised over a town (plate 2); a haywain suggested the economic forces behind the tale, as well as screenwriter Dennis Potter, a prolific writer of television and stage plays as well as of essays and novels who was not much known outside the UK until the 1986 mini-series The Singing Detective. Finally we come to the frame "with Anne Stallybrass"--most conspicuously seen as the wife of another male tyrant in the 1970 mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII -- and a plate of coins, bills, and hands to suggest the wife-sale. The previous acting credits of the male and female leads created for viewers in 1978 personas of Bates and Stallybrass based on their previous cinema and tv characterisations. Missing from the credit list is director David Giles, at the time known chiefly for his work on the literary tv mini-series Vanity Fair (1967), The First Churchills (1969), and Sense and Sensibility, as well as the Derek Jacobi Hamlet in the BBC/Time-Life Shakespeare's Plays series. Thus, the television audience's pre-viewing experiences may have influenced their assessment of the 1978 production from the outset, the credits subtly echoing Hardy's theme of the inescapable influences of the past of memory, and of person guilt.

The title "Part One" dissolves into the mists of the Wessex moors which are also the mists of memory as two women dressed in mourning but hardly "carpeted with dust" as in the text walk determinedly towards us. The older of the two significantly carries her bundle close to her, as if it were an infant, preparing us for the image of her earlier self. In the text, they walk with joined hands, in contrast to the physical alienation of Henchard and his wife earlier at this spot. In contrast, in the film Elizabeth-Jane's complains, "We don't even know where he is, whether we're going away from him, or towards him, or what!" Her petulance and the familiar landscape trigger in her mother's memory images of another unruly late-adolescent upon whom adult responsibilities and cares had been thrust, her quondam husband. "You were thinking of poor father," remarks the girl, in all innocence about the transaction at Weydon fair two decades earlier, producing her mother's ironic rejoinder, "Yes, in a way I was." This invented dialogue heightens the irony of what Potter has chosen to take from Hardy's text:

"It was here I first met with Newson -- on such a day as this." "First met with father here? Yes, you have told me so before. And now he's drowned and gone from us!" (Ch. 3)

To which Potter adds after "drowned" and "at the bottom of the sea." In his screenplay, past and present vie for dominance in the mother's consciousness as the women enter Weydon fair, still driving a thriving trade, despite the fallen condition of Mrs. Goodenough, whom Susan seeks out to enquire discretely after news of "their relative." Although the novel's socially fastidious girl insists, with bourgeois class-consciousness, that speaking to the ragged vendor "isn't respectable" (42) in the text, she is silent about this issue in the film. Entering a small tent (Potter's addition is perhaps intended to render more plausible the daughter's being unable to overhear the very private conversation), Susan presses forward in hopes of learning about what happened Henchard after that fateful night.

Meantime, in the film her daughter is not engaged (as in Hardy's text) at "some stalls of coloured prints" (42). Rather, Elisabeth-Jane is conveniently distracted by a Punch and Judy show -- another nice piece of Potter irony, since her mother's first marriage was characterised by "nothing but temper" as she defiantly proclaimed to those in the tent as she threw her husband back his ring and departed with the handsome and capable sailor. Michael, pitying himself for his out-of-work status and unwilling role as family bread-winner, has quickly become intoxicated on the furmity laced with rum (mentioned by Susan–we do not see it served), and now alternates between jocular and aggrieved moods. After the mock-auction has started and Henchard has placed the "goods" upon a table, the sailor enters as Henchard (perhaps trying to halt any further bidding) dismisses an offer of five shillings. We lose track of the sailor, however, as Henchard weaves back and forth between the tables. As the exercise (undoubtedly intended to denigrate wives in general) proceeds, Henchard enlists the aid of the horse- auctioneer, and quickly drives the bidding up to five guineas. Suddenly, the sailor steps forward, agreeing to pay the full sum, but only if the woman is willing, making him a suitable foil to the boorish, misogynistic Henchard. The scene then abruptly shifts to Henchard's awakening in the abandoned tent as Mrs. Goodenough puts up the last bench. Thus, the business and narration of the first three chapters are synthesized in the memories of two women, the abused wife and the publican, leaving us to deduce much about Susan's subsequent liaison with Richard Newson from the few hints dropped by her daughter, who, convincingly and sympathetically played by Janet Maw, will become a pivotal figure in the film's conflicting emotions and relationships and ultimately the poor girl who marries the prince, the new "improved" Mayor of Casterbridge, the Scot straight out of Romance, Donald Farfrae (Jack Galloway), who exhibits sympathy for the lower orders and a latent flair for labour-relations that Henchard apparently lacks.

"All this was eighteen year ago," muses Susan to the furmity-woman. Then Mrs. Goodenough recalls that the man in question came back some time later to announce that he would be found "a long way off, in Casterbridge." Certainly the distance between Weyhill in Hampshire and Dorchester near the south coast was considerable in pre-automobile England. Neatly, the montage shifts from Mrs. Goodenough's renewing her offer of putting "a thought of rum" in Susan's gruel to the sparkling wineglasses on the dining table of The King's Arms. At the dinner of the town council, an irascible Henchard, older and heavier, his fluffy hair like Susan's tinged with grey, is now a self-assured, teetotal leader, as his chain of office immediately implies, who vociferously rebukes a waiter for attempting to pour him a glass of wine with his meal. Potter has eliminated the powerful scene of twenty-one-year-old Henchard's foreswearing strong liquors and dramatised the determination of the former alcoholic not to relive the past in drunken excesses and indiscretions. In the darkness outside, Potter has a covered wagon bearing Susan and Elizabeth-Jane (who arrive at Casterbridge on foot in Hardy's novel) approach, causing viewers to ponder how Potter will effect the reunion that Hardy's text requires. Further situational irony is afforded by Potter's making the wagon by which the women arrive one of Henchard's, his name in "Henchard, Corn, Seed, and Root Merchant" on the spatterboard partially obscured by a tarpaulin.

Although, as Pamela Dalziel remarks, "For Barnes, Hardy's story belonged primarily to the women: Susan, Lucetta, and especially Elizabeth Jane" (82), for Potter and Giles the story is as much about the fall from greatness of a representative of the old ways and the simultaneous rise of an exponent of the new ways as it is about romantic triangles. Janet Maw effectively takes over as co-star with demise of Anne Stallybrass's character, but Alan Bates dominates the entire action from the dinner scene at The King's Arms. His is indeed an astonishing performance as he seems to become Hardy's Michael Henchard in maturity: "Through facial expressions as well as through physical presence, Bates conveys the innate contradictions in Henchard's character" (AngliaCampus 2). His bluster, moodiness, and quick temper are all established in the flashback, enabling us to disregard the dated sets, monotonous camera angles, and static scenes. Nevertheless, one has the impression that this is the same man rather than a grownup version of a younger man because young Michael Henchard and his middle-aged counterpart are not sufficiently distinguishable, despite his markedly browner hair and thinner face and form in the flashback.

Additional Material

Potter's TV mini-series based on the The Mayor of Casterbridge was released on VHS 4 in February 1991.]

Between 1908 and 1929 fifteen of Hardy's stories were dramatised, there having been five professional productions of Tess. There were sixteen productions by Dorchester's Hardy Players, and a further ten by professional acting companies, eight of these being in Greater London. The Barnes Theatre, on the south bank of the Thames, was the venue for Hardy's own adaptation of Tess in September, 1925, and for John Drinkwater's adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge in September, 1926 (that being the first staging of the novel).

In 1921, Sidney Morgan of the Progress Film Company directed the first screen version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy having signed an agreement with that production company earlier that year that gave him a certain measure of control over the cinematic adaptation. However, Hardy in a letter to Morgan in March 1921 apparently sanctioned some changes in the plot of the 65-minute film: the character of Farfrae was eliminated; Elizabeth-Jane became Henchard's daughter rather than Newson's; she was courted by an unnamed doctor; and the film ended with Henchard's departure rather than his death. Despite the fact that the Company's studios were located in Sussex, certain scenes involved location-shoots at Maiden Castle, Grey's Bridge at Dorchester, and the city's Hangman's Cottage. In a letter to Florence Henniker dated 2 July 1921, Hardy wrote that he had met the cast of the movie that morning on location in Dorchester; he reported having talked to the Mayor (Fred Groves), Susan (Pauline Peters), and Elizabeth-Jane (Mary Clare).

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