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Middlemarch (1994)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Middlemarch (1994)
BBC1, tx. 12/1-16/2/1994
6 x 54-80 min episodes, colour.
DirectorAnthony Page
CompaniesWGBH (Boston)
ProducerLouis Marks
ScriptAndrew Davies
Original novelGeorge Eliot
PhotographyBrian Tufano
MusicStanley Myers,
 Christopher Gunning

Cast: Juliet Aubrey (Dorothea Brooke); Douglas Hodge (Dr Tertius Lydgate); Trevyn McDowell (Rosamond Vincy); Rufus Sewell (Will Ladislaw); Peter Jeffrey (Nicholas Bulstrode); Jonathan Firth (Fred Vincy)

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Dorothea Brooke marries a much older man, Edward Casaubon, with the intention of supporting his great intellectual endeavours. But Casaubon resists her help and fails to encourage her own development, and dies without completing his opus. Before his death, Casaubon places conditions upon her inheritance that prove a burden to Dorothea.

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"George Eliot writes scenes which you can almost lift off the page and give the lines of dialogue to actors and you have a scene that couldn't be improved on by any scriptwriter, I believe." In praising Eliot's apparent gift for drama, Louis Marks, the producer of the BBC's 1994 serialisation of Middlemarch, may appear to be slightly denigrating the role of the novel's adapter, but in fact the choice of Andrew Davies to dramatise this production proved inspired. Davies had scripted successful adaptations before (To Serve Them All My Days, BBC, 1980-81; House of Cards, BBC, 1990), but this was his first attempt at a classic novel. The discovery of his latent talent for condensing and energising works of English literature led him from here to the acclaimed Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995), and to a long string of successes thereafter.

Davies' skill is much in evidence in Middlemarch. The adaptation is, for the most part, remarkably faithful, and he incorporates Eliot's themes, such as the faltering advance of social reform in the 1830s, to create a convincing background to the human drama. When necessary, he makes characters and events more palatable to a modern audience. Dorothea Brooke, for instance, in the novel an occasionally priggish heroine, becomes a warmer figure. In this case, credit must also go to Juliet Aubrey's performance, which breathes life into a character constrained by her sex in expressing herself emotionally and in finding an outlet for her altruism. While the visuals are conventionally beautiful, with interiors carefully recreated and photographed to resemble Dutch paintings, Davies simplifies the narrative structure and chops up the sedate rhythms of Eliot, giving each episode the dramatic climax deemed necessary for modern television serials.

This popularising approach was not uniformly welcomed. On the one hand, purists disparaged the perceived lapse into soap opera dynamics, while other critics complained of a lack of boldness. The BBC, however, was rewarded with precisely what it sought: a high profile ratings success. Middlemarch cost the then-considerable sum of £6 million (equivalent to the budget of the Merchant-Ivory film Howard's End, 1992), and was an attempt to distinguish itself from a disappointing sequence of period dramas, such as Scarlet and Black (BBC, 1993). By emulating the lavish detail of 'heritage cinema' productions, Middlemarch refreshed the public's appetite for classic adaptations, and opened up a new seam of drama material.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. Lydgate and Rosamond marry (2:40)
2. Dorothea and Will alone (3:46)
3. Casaubon's final request (5:10)
Complete episode 3 (1:00:00)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Hardy, Robert (1925-)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)
TV Literary Adaptation