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Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)
BBC, tx. 22/1-5/3/1978. 7 episodes of 50 mins each, colour.
DirectorDavid Giles
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerJonathan Powell
ScriptDennis Potter
Author of the Original WorkThomas Hardy
MusicCarl Davis

Cast: Alan Bates (Michael Henchard), Jack Galloway (Donald Farfrae), Janet Maw (Elizabeth-Jane), Clifford Parrish (Longways), Peter Bourke (Abel Whittle), Anna Massey (Lucetta), Ronald Lacey (Jopp)

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In a drunken moment of weakness, a poor itinerant hay-trusser sells his wife and baby daughter at a fair. Eighteen years later they meet again, by which time he has become the rich and powerful Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Dennis Potter adapted only a handful of other writer's works and, when he did, always tried to remain as faithful to them as possible, feeling that "in a way, anything else would be a betrayal". While Late Call (BBC, 1974) and Christabel (BBC, 1988) are models of textual fidelity, his most impressive work as an adaptor can probably be found in his scripts derived from Thomas Hardy: 'A Tragedy of Two Ambitions' (Wessex Tales, BBC, tx. 21/11/1973) and especially The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978), which was shot completely on video on location in Dorset (Hardy's 'Casterbridge' is really Dorchester).

Hardy's long, bruising tale of the downfall of the title character is a typically doom-laden one and is structured along the lines of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, with all the events leading to his downfall flowing from a single initial mistake attributable to a 'fatal flaw' in his character. Some critics regretted even the smallest of Potter's changes, such as his addition of the opening flashback, in which Susan Henchard (Anne Stallybrass) comes to a road sign and recalls when she and her husband stopped at the same place 18 years before. Potter's flashback uses film and television conventions to evoke a sense of foreboding and of a repeating and unchanging cycle, providing a visual and stylistic equivalent to Hardy's moral determinism, a view of an irrevocable and implacable destiny in the void of a pitiless, unwavering universe.

The image of a fork in the road also recalls the story of Oedipus, whose fate is sealed at a crossroads on the road to Delphi. Indeed, there is a strongly oedipal feel to Potter's adaptation, which foregrounds Henchard's difficult relationships with his 'daughter' Elizabeth Jane and mistress Lucetta (Anna Massey) when she marries Donald Farfrae (Jack Galloway), although this is partly achieved by shifting the focus away from Henchard's initial friendship with Farfrae and their subsequent business rivalry. This is regrettable especially in view of the particularly subtle performance from Galloway.

Henchard, beneath his coarse and bluff exterior, is haunted by a sense of his own inadequacy. It's a monster of a role and Alan Bates brings a depth and sensitivity to the part which, despite a tendency to be occasionally a little too studied and mannered in some scenes, successfully conveys the essential mixture of naïveté, stubbornness and the basic, brutish animal instincts that bring about Henchard's decline and fall.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. On the road (3:03)
2. The auction (4:54)
3. Mr Farfrae (2:31)
4. Rendezvous (1:59)
Complete first episode (52:34)
Bates, Alan (1934-2003)
Davis, Carl (1936-)
Jones, Freddie (1927-)
Massey, Anna (1937-2011)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
TV Literary Adaptation