Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Thirteenth Tale - BBC TV review

The Thirteenth Tale, a BBC adaptation of a best-seller by Diane Setterfield (which I haven't read) proved to be one of the stand-out dramas of the festive season. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, lead roles played by Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Coleman - what could possibly go wrong with this gothic tale? Not much. I really enjoyed it.

The opening was spookily (sorry, couldn't resist it0 reminiscent of the preamble to The Tractate Middoth on Christmas Day. A woman arrives at an impressive but rather forbidding country house by an enigmatic housekeeper, and is ushered into the presence of an elderly person who is close to death but has something important to say. But from that point, the two stories diverged. Redgrave plays a famous writer who wants Coleman to write her biography. Her story proves to be compelling, but deeply disturbing.

That story is (or seems to be - I'm trying to avoid spoilers here) about twins who grow up in a strange and almost surreal environment. Ronald Knox famously urged mystery writers to exercise restraint in the use of twins as a plot device, but The Thirteenth Tale is not really a detective story, although there is a puzzle to be solved. And more importantly, there is to my mind something deeply fascinating about twins. Perhaps it's because I'm an only child that I find the nature of the twin relationship especially mysterious, yet very intriguing. The experience of being a twin is so very different from my own experience. I've never written a story about twins, but one of these days, I'd like to have a go.

If I did, I'd be very happy if it was anything like as good as The Thirteenth Tale. The weird old houses, the slightly sinister family retainers, the entrancing gardens complete with topiary, and the frequent hints that something sexually illicit was going on, all these elements were mixed skilfully by Hampton to provide first rate entertainment. A gripping story, well told.

No Forgotten Book tomorrow, by the way. But there will be a post about a good and little known Golden Age novel in a week's time.


Anonymous said...

Great review, Martin, and I total agree. This rose above the usual spooky fare on TV. As we sat watching it, our adult daughter said, 'I don't think I could ever live in a really old house.' This one creeped us out! And Olivia Coleman being so restrained (save for her own flash back)made the re-told story more chilling. Btw re; twins - I have a twin brother, and my hubby Jeff has an identical twin, and throughout our lives there has been subliminal and not so subliminal rivalry! Jeff's not close to his brother (who's played some mean tricks on him)but I am to mine, however, being a twin should def come with a health warning!

Deb said...

I must admit I felt a bit letdown by the book--a lot of telling rather than showing (which perhaps would work better visually than on the written page) and characters often doing something completely out of character just to further the plot; however, I'm a big Vanessa Redgrave fan, so I will watch this if/when it shows up on American TV or Netflix. Incidentally, I'm a mother of twin girls--now in their mid-teens. They never did anything really spooky, but when they were little, they did have their own "twin language" (a common phenomenon) and would sometimes sit quietly side-by-side and then both suddenly erupt into giggles as if one of them had said something hilarious!

GeraniumCat said...

I thought the adaptation a considerable improvement on the book, which I found very sprawly - very much as Deb says, too much telling. Here it was much tighter and more atmospheric, and I thought it was beautifully filmed, too.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks everyone. A number of people have now told me they preferred the TV to the book, which is unuusual but interesting.