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Dickens and the Classic Serial
by Robert Giddings
Staff Research Seminar, School of Media Arts and Communication, Bournemouth University
15 November 1999

The Classic Serial on Television and Radio "Unceasingly contemplate the generation of all things through change, and accustom thyself to the thought that the Nature of the Universe delights above all in changing the things that exist and making new ones of the same pattern. For everything that exists is the seed of that which shall come out of it". Marcus Aurelius1

"I almost think there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old people, make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one. One holds fast and surely what is past. The dead have exhausted their power of deceiving....."2

First of all, let me place myself and my work for you -- give you a kind of personal autobiographical Lit Review. The fact is, the UK tradition of Media Studies, the way the discipline has developed, does not serve very well in the particular area where my work is focused. Media Studies is very weak in aesthetics, in actually focusing on media texts, and making aesthetic judgements about them. This would go completely against the grain of the endeavours of the media studies industry which, (understandably loyal to its original begetters in British sociology) is emphatically against the making of Value Judgements. Whereas, aesthetics is about judgements of value, or it is nothing. Consequently, to me, Media Studies is to television and radio like studying Eng Lit and never reading any novels or dramas or poetry, but concentrating entirely on the publishing industries, the question of ownership, distribution and readership behaviour.... It seems utterly reductive to me, product as I am of an education dominated entirely by Leavisites in apostolic succession from the Master Himself. My Professor was L.C.Knights. (Say no more).

My interest in is radio and TV drama, and whether broadcasters produce good broadcast drama when dramatising classic novels. What we lack is any tradition following in the steps of some kind of media Aristotle or Plato. We need to ask -- with Aristotle -- what kinds of works are done and what characterises them? and with Plato, what effect will these works have on those who consume them? There is little of this kind of work available to students of the media.

My position is that I love classic novel dramatisations, and I always have. Spared a traditional British secondary school education I listened to them on the BBC radio in hospitals, children's homes and in bed at home for years and years and took to them when they resurfaced on television.

The questions I have been investigating are:-
  1. What is the tradition, where does the original prototype concept come from?
  2. To what extent has it endured unchanged?
  3. By what standards are we aesthetically to evaluate classic serials?
In opening, I am unable to neglect to say how proud I am to be here before you, delivering a paper on the work I have been doing. When I first joined the teaching team here I think some of my colleagues were uneasy that I came here with a background in literature, rather than in the social sciences. There was indeed little that I could directly do to allay such suspicions, except, politely point out that other eminent scholars who had, in fact led the way to today's media and cultural studies -- those very areas that were to offer a modest living to generations of Sociology graduates -- had themselves been English Honours graduates. Did I need to mention FR Leavis, Marshal McLuhan, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stewart Hall, Fred Inglis -- all of whom had graduated in English Honours?

Do not think, for one moment, that this is not relevant to what I want to talk about here today. The roots of what concerns me here lie deep in our literature. And I came naturally and inevitably to study the initiation, development and history of the classic novel adaptation as serial drama as a British broadcasting genre. For, as some of you may or may not know, I am that rare thing in British University professional life, a genuinely uneducated person. Childhood illness and years spent in various hospitals and institutions until I was eighteen ensured that I was spared a British grammar schooling. But I had my radio. I was educated by the BBC. That is a fact. I listened regularly to those BBC radio classic novels and it was here I learned to love Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins. But above all, it was BBC radio which opened the pages of Dickens to me for the first time. And I went on to read the books. So when I won a scholarship to University -- still as inexplicable to me, I assure you, as it was to the educational psychologist who had declared me ineducable at the age of eighteen -- it was to find that I was quite well read. Thus my work on broadcast classic novels may well be seen as repaying a deeply appreciated debt of gratitude to the BBC and its founding father, John Reith, who invented public service broadcasting.

The work I have been doing in recent years in collaboration with Dr Keith Selby, with whom I used to teach English and Media courses here, emerged from teaching media and communication here and evolved naturally from researching and writing Screening the Novel. (Written in collaboration with Keith and Chris Wensley). Keith and I found that little work had been done on the ways in which the broadcast classic serial as a genre had been initiated, pioneered and developed to become an accepted broadcasting genre.

But let us not neglect the great help offered by media studies work on Genre Theory. This may give us some kind of critical, analytic or theoretical apparatus with which to tackle the subject. So then, a bit of theory. There are several ways in which a media genre may be regarded.
  1. It can be evaluated aesthetically. We may attempt to define the genre in terms of a system of conventions that permit artistic expression. We would need to establish what constitutes a classic serial, as broadcast drama. What qualities does it have, which might differentiate from other costume dramas or adaptations of novels? We would need to establish what constitutes the conventions which governed the manner in which novels were dramatised and scheduled for broadcasting.
  2. Additionally, classic serials may also be seen as examples of broadcasting ritual, which involves an examination of the genre as a means by which a culture speaks to itself, and incorporates an evaluation of shared beliefs and values as transmitted by the form. Two aspects of classic serial form in particular need pondering, the "classic serial" prototype, and the type of narrative prose fiction selected for the "classic serial" treatment. The form itself, the drama serial in episodes of equal length broadcast in weekly instalments at weekends (in early BBC radio history it was early on Sunday evenings), was created to build up audience loyalty. It provided good wholesome family listening particularly for Autumn weekends, and accommodated itself comfortably into the Public Service Broadcasting policy aims of the BBC's founder, John Reith and the construction of the Reithian Sunday. This considerably affected the choice of material, which had to be seen as worthy and morally wholesome, even uplifting. The form has been a staple of British broadcasting for decades and continues to thrive, though its history has not been entirely free of ups and downs.

    Ritual theory although suggests how genre connects with the evolving social order. The broadcast classic serial becomes a means by which past literature is identified, processed and assessed for classical status -- worthy of classical status. This contributes to the construction and maintenance of the literary canon. This may work imperceptibly. For example, it is self evident that Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and George Eliot have quietly assumed the status of classical authors. Not an eyebrow would be raised at the announcement that one of their novels had been currently dramatised as a classic serial. But being broadcast as a classic serial in itself becomes an accolade which dubs a work as a classic. Adapting a novelist's work for broadcasting as a classic serial was accepted as an important stage towards literary canonisation.. Thus, if it is given out that "Evelyn Waugh's 'A Handful of Dust' or John Le Carre's 'The Spy Who came in From the Cold' is to be new classic serial on Radio Four" then those authors and those works have taken significant steps towards achieving classical status. Being processed by this genre is one of the stages by means of which novels become classic novels, may continue and by due process join the literary canon, become part of the valued cultural heritage and inherited by subsequent generations. And some strange things can happen. The process seemed to have gone full circle after the box-office success of the film The Piano in 1993. True, it was not actually based on a classic novel (nor on any novel at all, for that matter). But it looked like a classic novel, being full of breeches and bonnets. And indeed through all its tortured psychology and vigorous feminism proclaimed its self conscious allegiance to the School of the Brontes. The fact of the matter was, it should have been based a classic novel, but it wasn't. It was turned into a novel by Kate Pullinger in time for the Oscars ceremony in March 1994 (which sold well in paperback) and lo and behold, in due course, was obligingly given the accolade by BBC Radio Four and turned into a "classic serial". (It has yet to come full circle in the form of a "major television drama serial" but give 'em time). Charles Nordhoff's and James Hall's version of the mutiny on board HMS 'Bounty' was given lift off by the Book of the Month Club, established in popular history of various film treatments and eventually cropped up in BBC Radio Four's classic serial slot, starring Oliver Reed as William Bligh. (Obituaries listed this among his greatest roles). But are these really "classic" novels? Time, I suppose, will tell. Nevertheless, throughout all these vagaries of taste, the novels of Charles Dickens have maintained a place of honour in the classic serial tradition.

  3. Finally the classic serial may be examined ideologically. Here the genre might be seen sociologically as an instrument of control on several levels3 . At the industrial level, particularly on commercial television in the UK and USA in particular, the genre might assure advertisers of an audience for their messages. The need to guarantee the delivery of particular audiences with disposal income would influence the choice of particular novels for the treatment. It is important to consider these significant changes in production policy now consequent upon these market imperatives. Up until a few years ago the tendency was to market ready-made British programmes to the United States -- this was the case with Henry VIII and his Six Wives, Upstairs Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street, Henry VII, Elizabeth R, The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga and many more. The American television market was offered a choice and it took what it wanted. These were emphatically British programmes, and would be transmitted in the USA on Public Service Broadcasting channels with acknowledged sponsorship from such giants as Exxon, Rank Xerox, Mobil, Monsanto Chemicals, General Motors, who are happy to acquire quality by association with what are perceived as high culture products. The link between the commercial complex and the media was proclaimed by Time-Life's marketing information: "We would like to tell you about the benefits of underwriting quality programming....and how an exclusive association with one of our new productions can be of significant value to your company...." 4
It may be useful, then, to bear these principles in mind when looking at the origins and development of the broadcast classic serial as a genre in the British experience. What we would now recognise as the classic novel serial dramatisation developed not only as the creation of early BBC radio drama producers, but had partly evolved as the result of the expressed wishes of the BBC radio audiences just before the Second World War. As a result of listeners support, the BBC declared its intention in Radio Times to broadcast faithful serial dramatisations of classic novels, adhering to the original insofar as was possible.

The more I researched its history, the more I grew convinced that there was some considerable significance in the emergence of this genre at this particular moment in the nation's history. At such a moment of national crisis, when this country's stiffest mettle was put to the test in a war for its very survival5 , it seems understandable that we turned to the classics of our own language and listened to that inner voice which a nation finds in its greatest literature. Parallel with a renewed interest in Shakespeare, the BBC led the way in reopening the treasury of the English novel -- that rich collective consciousness, that multilayered expression of the country's deepest self -- its history, and what it thought about itself.

The English novel as featured in what we now recognise as the classic serial tradition, which itself was largely based on the English novel, with the occasional French, Russian or American writers by way of change. But in the main it was Boz, Jane, George Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Galsworthy.....And the greatest of these was Charles Dickens.

The popularity of serial drama had clearly proved itself in Send for Paul Temple and a twelve part serial adaptation of The Three Musketeers in 1938. There are fundamental developments in thinking about programme schedules as a result of a listeners' questionnaire which asked about preferences for serial formats in drama, entertainment and talks. This was the beginning of the magazine format and serial drama. On 31 March 1939 Val Gielgud, who was in charge of BBC radio drama, published a significant article in the Radio Times, only days after Adolf Hitler denounced Germany's non-aggression pact with Poland, and Britain and France pledged their support of Poland. This article, 'Plays and Features: There Are Many Treats in Store for the Lovers of Radio and Drama', discussed BBC plans for radio drama and features. Readers learned:

"Extensive new plans covering the future output of the Features and Drama Department have been made by Val Gielgud and his staff of writers and producers. Hitherto plays and features have been planned on the short term policy, at the most three months ahead. Now the situation has been reviewed, and planning for the whole year ahead is to be put in hand. An essential part of this new plan is the giving of regular and fixed time to plays and features. Beginning in April, Friday night will become the big night of the week for drama and features. At least one important show will be broadcast each Friday. New Serials Serial plays, which have been so popular a feature in broadcasting within the last two years, are to continue unabated. Starting this week is The Prisoner of Zenda. It will be followed by one that is likely to attract an entirely new public to this form of broadcast entertainment -- T.H.White's The Sword in the Stone, which Walt Disney has bought with a view to making it his second full length feature film, the successor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". 6

The article goes on to announce radio productions of plays from the past twenty years of the London theatre -- Noel Coward, Priestley, Gordon Daviot, Edgar Wallace -- plays from USA and from the Continent. So radio drama emerged in an interesting celebratory context. The classic serial was born at a propitious moment. A full page feature with photographs of the stars in their roles announced The Prisoner of Zenda with a flourish: 'The Prisoner of Zenda' will be broadcast as a serial play, starting on Sunday. The explanatory article is by Jack Inglis, who has adapted the great romantic novel for radio....'7 And it is very interesting to note that the adapter, Inglis, lays out what has become the golden rules of Classic Serial adaptation ever since:

"The story is simple, with clear cut characters, falls easily into nine episodes, and therefore seems ideally suited to radio serial form.... It always seems to me that it is the first duty of an adapter to reproduce in another medium the original flavour and atmosphere of the book. And so I have chosen the method which is nearest to the novel. Rudolph Rassendyll tells the story himself, introducing each episode. Once this is done, each instalment is complete in itself, and there is no 'narration' to break the interest.... I have stuck to the dialogue and, what is more important, I have stuck to the story..."8

The only bits he altered, to make the story clearer in radio terms, were in rendering the two castles into one, to make the geography more immediately understandable to the listener. It's interesting to note the fact that he had thought of having a plan of the castles printed in Radio Times so that listeners could follow the action as it unfolded, (the parallel of radio broadcasts of football with the numbered map in squares with its famous "Back to Square One!" is interesting) but this proved far too complicated. This epoch-making serial was transmitted on Sundays at 5.20 pm. Early Sunday evening was eventually to become the traditional time for the BBC Classic serial, and this routine survived into the age of television drama sixty years later. This serial was the prototype, upon which what we now recognise as the Classic Serial Tradition was to be based. Val Gielgud, in these firm foundations of the British classic serial tradition we now take for granted, was to demonstrate how radio broadcasting would play a major part in maintaining national morale. Only a few months after the Nazi invasion of Poland had hurled Europe into that complex of destruction, the Second World War,he had declared that drama and features were there to make "contributions to the preservation of civilized culture in time of war".

Dickens made his appearance in classic serial form in 1939, but had been identified as ideal material for public service broadcasting from the very earliest crystal set receiving Savoy Hill 2LO days of the BBC. This is culturally significant. Part of my argument is that Dickens had uniquely entered the lifeblood, to become part of the furniture of our minds, to colour the way we thought and we way we viewed the world we lived in. Bransby Williams, who had toured the music halls with his impersonation of Dickens's characters since the end of the last century, broadcast several of his character monologues, and performed Scrooge with a small supporting company. In January 1930 the first serial reading of any Dickens novel on radio was transmitted, when Great Expectations was read as a solo turn by V.C.Clinton Baddeley in sixteen instalments between January and April. These broadcasts proved very popular, and he followed them with serial readings of Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit and A Tale of Two Cities.

The significance of Dickens in our national culture and as suitable material for radio broadcasting was again demonstrated in 1936 when the BBC transmitted Mr Pickwick's 100 Years Old, scripted by V.C.Clinton Baddeley (also broadcast in Sweden and the USA). A similar celebration of the centenary of Nicholas Nickleby was broadcast in 1938, which contained dramatised scenes of the trial of William Shaw, the original Yorkshire schoolmaster on whom the dreadful Wackford Squeers was based.

As the BBC began to establish the classic radio serial, Pickwick Papers was serialised in October 1939, adapted in twelve episodes by Philip Wade, with Bryan Powley as Pickwick. Philip Wade was Sam Weller and Geoffrey Wincott Tony Weller. The BBC radio classic serial seems to have got itself well bedded down during the war.9 In November 1940 David Copperfield was serialised in twelve episodes in a dramatisation by Audrey Lucas, who followed this with two serialisation in 1941 -- Oliver Twist and Edwin Drood, both produced by Moray McLaren. The narrative problems in these adaptations were resolved by retaining the authorial voice of Charles Dickens, which was supplied by Ronald Simpson. A landmark production of David Copperfield on radio in 1943 featured Ralph Richardson as Micawber, a role he was memorably to reprise in the 1970 film. 10

Anthony Trollope's novels were to become a stable of the broadcast classic serial, and made their in impact early days of the tradition. Barchester Towers, adapted by H. Oldfield Box, was broadcast in ten parts in 1943. Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which was also to take up its part in the traditional schedules, was broadcast at Christmas 1944. The trial scene from Pickwick Papers, another stalwart, was broadcast on BBC radio in the adaptation by V.C.Clinton-Baddeley in 1945. In the same year Trollope's Doctor Thorne was serialised in thirteen episodes. Both David Copperfield and Dombey and Son were serialised in 1946.

Looking at the details of these early classic serial productions in Radio Times we can clearly see that the British classic serial tradition was based on certain assumptions. In the main the novels selected are in the nineteenth-century mainstream; although Jane Austen is a regular choice from the very earliest days, and there is an occasional Walter Scott. The novelists most favoured are Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, Trollope, Collins, Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot, and the Brontes. John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett were favoured from a slightly later period. Dickens was a very firm favourite. BBC radio serialised Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Oliver Twist and Pickwick Papers. A Christmas Carol regularly appeared in the schedules over the Christmas holidays. Several of the more adventurous nineteenth-century novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Barlasch of the Guard, The Three Musketeers, Swiss Family Robinson, were also serialised. Trollope continued to find honourable place in the classic serial tradition with The Warden, Phineas Finn, Orley Farm, The Small House at Allington, Barchester Towers, The Eustace Diamonds all in the schedules between 1946 and 1953.

Radio audiences enjoyed dramatisations of novels, and particularly relished the opportunities radio offered in bringing classic novels alive on the airwaves. Serialised classic novels were consumed as special treats associated with weekends and high holidays. Friday evening was at first scheduled for their transmission but this was soon transferred to Sunday evenings which became firmly established as their slot. With the advent of television early Sunday evening was taken over as appropriate scheduling for those serials suitable for family viewing and the more adult novel dramatisations were scheduled in late evening slot on Saturday or sometimes on a weekday evening.

When television took on the classic serial the genre had been well established by the BBC. By classic novel was usually mean a British novel of the Victorian or Edwardian period, with occasional forays into Jane Austen or occasionally into the 18th century. The intention was to serialise this fiction but to treat it with respect in an attempt to do justice to the original work. This is an important point. These were not adaptations. They were dramatisations. As far as possible these versions stuck to character, plot and dialogue as closely as broadcasting allowed. They were essentially translations from the printed page into broadcast drama.

The genre of the classic serial dramatisation was the creation of the BBC. The BBC's monopoly, and its conception of Public Service Broadcasting, made this possible. The genre was to survive fairly well, even when the context and environment of British broadcasting changed -- when TV was reintroduced in the early Post War period, when commercial television started in 1955, when BBC-2 started in 1964, after the initiation of Channel Four -- through several economic crises and well into the age or deregulation. There is interesting evidence of change and adjustment with the times. Classic serials got a little more -- how shall I put it -- adult (?) in the Swinging Sixties and the politicising of TV drama post Kathy Come Home and the pioneering Wednesday Play, and dramas by Dennis Potter, Colin Mercer and others. The sense of change is clear in the handling of The Forsyste Saga.

BBC-2 had been launched in April 1964 and a new slot was allocated for classic serial adaptations (of a more adult kind) on Saturday evenings on the new BBC channel. This allowed for a more sophisticated and sometimes daring choice of novel and a more adult treatment in longer episodes. The classic serial took a considerable step forward. The year 1967 was to prove a turning point in television drama history. The Forsyte Saga was screened, a massive undertaking and the last classic serial made in monochrome.

The Forsyte Saga was a landmark in the change-over from live drama transmission to monochrome video recording. The series gathered an audience of over eighteen million viewers per episode, (which would offer very considerable competition to Granada's Coronation Street today) and was hugely successful in the USA where it was shown on National Educational Television in 1979 -- the first major breakthrough in selling BBC series to America. It was bought and shown all over the world, including the USSR. All told world viewing figures are reckoned to have totalled one hundred and sixty million.11

The Forsyste Saga seemed to have struck a particular chord with British viewers, reaching the same parts of the national psyche so soon to be tickled by Granada's drama series created by John Hawksworth Upstairs Downstairs 1970-75. (And several other drama series transmitted in the next decade with settings in the Edwardian period).

Vanity Fair, made in ostentatious colour to launch BBC colour television on 2 December 1967, was the first classic novel serialised in colour. It seems significant to me that these two works -- John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair -- should feature on British TV at such a moment of change, with the new channel giving a different status to the classic serial as a genre, and at the change over from live transmission to recording on video, and the introduction of colour transmission.

There was much internal BBC comment at the time on the aptness of Galsworthy -- whose sturdy bourgeois fiction had always been a staple of the BBC classic novel tradition since the earliest radio days -- as a novelist to lead the way into new TV territory. It is odd to note, in this respect, that staffers praised Henry VIII and his Six Wives (another epoch making TV drama series) by saying it out Galsworthied-Galsworthy. And, as we shall see later, BBC-1's recent dramatisation of Vanity Fair has been at the vanguard of the Corporation's triumph in the unexpected revival of the classic serial in the current age of media deregulation in the Battle of the Bodices.

Later developments in the genre have been interesting. The BBC continued to lead the way throughout the 1970's splendidly continuing the tradition on radio (with excellent versions of Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations with Freddie Jones and Martin Jarvis respectively in the lead roles) and furthering the scope and quality of the genre in colour TV with wonderful productions of War and Peace, Wuthering Heights, Sentimental Education, Germinal, The Mayor of Casterbridge, David Copperfield and several novels by Henry James and George Eliot. Then, as inflation began to cut into the value of the Licence Fee, commercial television entered the field with Granada Television's stunning version of Hard Times. The BBC rallied and fought back with several Jane Austen's and a landmark Pride and Prejudice (Fay Weldon out of Jane Austen). As the 1980's unrolled it was clear ITV had the BBC on the ropes with Brideshead Revisited and floored them with The Jewel in the Crown. BBC Television rallied with a very respectable version of Fortunes of War. The Corporation seems to have lost its command of the great heights of broadcast versions of classic novels and was prepared to trundle along with what remained of the great tradition with its increasingly humdrum sausage machine factory production line classic novels on a Sunday tea time, which seems to represent the classic novel serial genre at its lowest ebb. To view them now on video is to recognise their frightful ordinariness, their belief that sincerely going through the motions was somehow enough. And indeed, the long tradition seemed quietly to trickle to a standstill and dry up quietly and modestly as the BBC closed down their classic serials unit soon after a very respectable version of Vanity Fair ( the last production was actually The Franchise Affair).

But there were signs of life in the old dog yet, witnessed by their impressive and lavish Bleak House in 1985. Then in 1990, as the age of deregulation dawned and the battle for sales and ratings really quickened, the BBC bravely entered the field anew with Clarissa, soon to be followed by Middlemarch and then carrying all before it with the whirlwind success of Andrew Davies's glamorous and seductive version of Pride and Prejudice. The BBC's aims were to demonstrate to a grudging paymaster that they deserved their public funding, and to earn additional cash from overseas sales. ITV fought back in what is now known as the Battle of the Bodices, and Moll Flanders, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Persuasion, Tess of the Durbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd, Ivanhoe, Nostromo, Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations (and more to come!) crowded the schedules. Several of these were great money spinners for the Corporation -- and we should note that though several of these productions were panned by British TV reviewers, they went on to praise and massive earnings overseas, especially the USA. This brings us back to Thackeray's Vanity Fair once more. This was transmitted on BBC-1 on Sunday evenings in the Autumn of 1998.

It is interesting that just as the revival of television costume drama and classic serials should be at its height, Vanity Fair should be chosen to show off the BBC's capacity in the genre, just as it was chosen to launch the advent of BBC colour television three decades ago. Radio Times went overboard in its efforts to establish this as an adaptation "for the nineties" drawing on the groundswell of enthusiasm for the Spice Girls and featuring it as "Girl Power" -- assuring readers that although it was "a polite costume drama of the old school" nevertheless it had an "anti-heroine" in Becky Sharp -- "a startlingly modern woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, and who is as shocking today as she was 150 years ago".12 Although much of this may be put down to hype, there was an element of this from the very earliest stages of the series' inception. There is such a wealth of fine material to choose in Thackeray's wide-ranging, potentially dramatic fiction -- why not Pendennis, or Henry Esmond, or The Newcomes -- all them rich, colourful, potentially exciting material for the television dramatist? Andrew Davies admitted that he found it difficult to comment on why it was chosen: "....because it is to me the only Thackeray novel I have read. I particularly like its cynical but compassionate tone, its double-heroine plot construction, the extraordinary, unique, Becky Sharp, the huge sweep of it, and also its parallels with our own glittering and tawdry world. I think it's very funny, too".13

Current BBC budgetary policy combined with market factors affect the commissioning and treatment of television production. Andrew Davies commented: "These days more and more decisions are taken at the top (i.e. Controller of BBC-1) and interestingly enough, the idea of doing 'Vanity Fair' was popular from the start. It's a novel that everyone has heard of (though some people think it's a magazine) and most people have got a vague notion that Becky Sharp is a great character with some naughtiness and notoriety attached to her, like Moll Flanders. It was earmarked for BBC-1 from the start, which means these days that it is supposed to be popular, not just worthy".14

Vanity Fair cost nearly a £1 million an episode and initially failed to get the kind of prime time Sunday evening ratings the Corporation had hoped, so it was rescheduled to 9.30 pm. Even so its reception was mixed.15 But there are important lessons here. Critical reception may have been mixed, the broadsheet papers in particular were reluctant to go overboard, and ratings were modest. But international sales have been staggering. By May 1999, scarcely six months after its original British transmission, Vanity Fair had earned the Corporation £1, 270, 645.16

Vanity Fair was a co-production with two US subscription channels who are interested in classic novel dramatizations, A & E New York and WGBH Boston. Andrew Davies believes they attract discriminating audiences and that their executives seek good, sound products: "...they tend to like the originals, and they like faithful adaptations -- their influence is benign and helpful. But, I guess they'd find it easier to market 'Vanity Fair' than a lesser known novel".17

There seem, then, to have been two fairly strong influences shaping this production of Vanity Fair . There was a commercial willingness to fund a fairly well known Victorian novel, which people had more or less heard of -- even if they haven't read -- and the fact that Becky seemed a reasonable candidate to launch as a heroine "for the nineties".

Should we go back now and have another look at the theoretical concepts with which we began?

Media Theory is able to offer us three ways in which to examine a media genre. A genre may be evaluated aesthetically. We might attempt to define the genre in terms of those conventions which actually provide artistic expression. Technology, economic forces and historical imperatives have combined to produce the various conventions of style and format we expect in broadcast drama. We would need further to examine those process by which a work assumes classic status, and what constitutes a classic serial.as broadcast drama. What qualities does the Classic Serial have which differentiates it from other costume dramas or adaptations of novels? We would also need to explore the conventions which have influenced the manner in which novels were dramatised and scheduled for broadcasting.

When we looked at the origins of the Classic Serial as a media genre it became obvious that in the main 19th century or early 20th century British novels tended to be favoured, although occasionally American or European classics might be included. These novels were serialised in several episodes and treated with respect, almost with deference towards their "classical" status.

Media production professionals invariably exerted considerable effort to preserve some sort of authentic period sense, good diction and as much of the original dialogue as possible. Broadcast drama shared much the same concerns which feature programming in terms of sound effects, music and general production values -- in a genuine attempt to recreated a convincing sense of the past. This might sometimes have erred towards the precious, for example a peculiarly crisp and careful elocution-teacher style of pronunciation became the way things were done in BBC productions of Jane Austen. British actors developed a "Sunday Best" manner of carefully to enunciating the words so as to ensure no harm came to them as they left their lips. It is even possible that people now think that this is the way people spoke in Regency England.

Then there were ways in which classic serials could be seen as examples of broadcasting ritual, in which the genre could be examined as a means of overhearing what a culture thinks about itself. This involves an evaluation of a society's shared beliefs and values as transmitted by the form. Two aspects of classic serial form present themselves here -- the "classic serial" prototype and the kind of narrative prose fiction which tends to get selected for the "classic serial" treatment..

The prototype, as has been shown, was soon established as a serial drama in episodes of equal length broadcast in regular weekly instalments and was evolved in order to build up audience loyalty. Regular routine listening habits were seen as important to BBC radio broadcasters in creating audience loyalty and the BBC soon established Sunday as the day for the Classic Serial.

This further served to influence the choice of material for the treatment, as chosen novels had to satisfy Reithian requirements as to moral wholesomeness and uplift etc. Once established, the form became a staple of British broadcasting which has lasted for decades and continues to thrive on BBC radio as well as on British commercial and BBC television. . However, its history has by no means be free of ups and downs.

Ritual theory also explores the ways in which a genre may connect with the evolving social order. The broadcast classic serial plays its part in the constant, ongoing construction of the literary canon, a means by which past literature is identified as worthy of classic status. The "classics" are not always there, standing immutable in some frozen hierarchy, but are a man-made construction which requires constant maintenance and repair. In these processes works may come and go.

Viewed in the long term. the classic serial tradition shows who was in, and who was out, at various stages of cultural history. This may work imperceptively, as old works may quietly withdraw, as new ones emerge. Nevertheless, Dickens does seem a permanent fixture. Recent years have seen television versions of Martin Chuzzlewit, Hard Times, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

Finally, he classic serial tradition may be examined ideologically and sociologically perceived as a means of control. These aspects of media messages and meanings have become very strong in recent years as a result of the influence of the French theorists such as Barthes, Floucault, Althusser and their disciples in British intellectual life. There are two aspects to be considered. Just to concentrate on British media products -- originally works may be have been made into TV productions with British consumers in mind, and then offered (and bought) for screening overseas, particularly by the American market. These were "British" products, bought and shown overseas. As production costs rose here, and corporate funding became more constrained by market factors, the overseas market began to influence the actual choice of works chosen for production. The question asked was: would this sell overseas? What this means in English money is: -- Would the Americans like it? (Similar imperatives influence book publishing). The tendency now is for works to be selected for dramatisation because they might well appeal to the US, in the hope of attracting a co-production deal which would help underwrite production costs. This ultimately means that commercial factors play a considerable function in the ideological construction of "Britishness". To put it crudely: profit decides what gets made, and what gets made gives the world its idea of the British. Connections with tourism and the heritage industries are obvious enough.

At the time of writing it continues to be the BBC and the major commercial television companies who make classic serials -- the only discernible infiltration seems to have been in satellite broadcasting, where the Disney Channel, curiously enough reviving the classic novel serial as an item in junior programming reminiscent of much earlier BBC traditions, has transmitted wholesome family Disney versions of Oliver Twist, (with Richard Dreyfuss as Fagin), The Old Curiosity Shop (with Peter Ustinov as Grandfather Trent) and Great Expectations (with Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch). But it is important to remember that these productions are usually made by a British television company in a co-production deal with the Disney Corporation. As far as the major players are concerned, these circumstances have worked together in creating a set of conditions highly suitable for the successful production of a particular style of classic novel adaptation by the major television companies. This has ensured the healthy survival of the classic serial well into the age of satellite television, cable, deregulation and digital broadcasting. But of course, as this history will show, the genre has survived, with some significant modifying tendencies.

To sum up:
1939-1950's The genre was pioneered by the BBC and its form and style fairly well maintained (fidelity to the text, high production values, elitist culture) This survived throughout BBC radio monopoly.

1945-1964 BBC TV revived the genre, introducing the Sunday Tea Time serial and continuing occasional classy weekday evening serials.

1955 Commercial TV made little immediate impact. Little attempt to rival BBC in this area.

1964 Introduction BBC-2 introduced more adult classic novels, and strengthened the hold of the Sunday Tea Time slot for kids classics. etc.

1970's: BBC led the field with lavish versions of the classics with high production values

1978 ITV hit back as BBC funding felt the draught of inflation -- Granada TV's Hard Times was followed by Brideshead and Jewel in the Crown. BBC goes quiet on the classic serial front until 1990.

1990's The age of deregulation -- BBC fights back with Clarissa, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice -- opens Battle of the Bodices. Triumph of BBC-1's Vanity Fair. Decade ends with Alan Bleasdale's Oliv er Twist on ITV and David Copperfield as BBC-1's Christmas New Year Millennium Holiday Special.
1Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Book IV, sec. 36.

2Horace Walpole, letter dated 5 January 1766

3See Peter L. Berger: Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective 1963, Harmondsworth, Penguin 1966 pp 83-88.

4See Robert Giddings: 'Super Product' in New Society 13 July 1978 pp 83-4.

5Cf J.B.Priestley: Postscripts, Heinemann 1940 pp. 96 ff.

6Radio Times 31 March 1939 p 6.

7Radio Times, op. cit.p 7.

8Ibid p 7.

9Tom Hickman: What Did You Do in the War, Auntie? The BBC at War 1939-45, BBC 1995 pp 77-8.

10David Copperfield Omnibus/Sagittarius, American TV film 1970. It was written by Jack Pulman, produced by Frederick H. Brogger and directed by Delbert Mann. It starred Robin Phillips as David, Edith Evans as Betsy, Michael Redgrave as Peggotty, Susan Hampshire as Agnes and Corin Redgrave as Steerforth. Richardson's performance as Micawber is superb.

11Kenneth Passingham: The Guinness Book of TV Facts and Feats, Guinness Superlatives Ltd. 1984 pp 227-8.

12Radio Times, 32 October 1998.

13Andrew Davies, interview with the author, August 1998.


15Saturday Review, BBC Radio Four 7 November 1998.

16Martin Rakusen, Commercial Executive, BBC Rights Agency, interview with the author, May 1999.


Robert Giddings is Professor Emeritus in Communication and Culture in the School of Media Arts and Communication, Bournemouth University.