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Tess of the D'Urbervilles, BBC1
The Family, Channel 4
Merlin, BBC1

David Nicholl's adaptation of 'Tess' is faithful to the book but lacks the power and potency of Roman Polanski's Seventies film

Reviewed by Hermione Eyre
Sunday, 21 September 2008

Last week's TV was the Seventies revisited. There was an attentive fly-on-the-wall documentary about a family, called The Family, just as there was in 1973. There was Tess of the D'Urbervilles being fed strawberries out of season, which can't help but make you think of Roman Polanski's Tess (1979), and there was the final episode of Grange Hill (irritating aspirational parents since 1978). There was even a profile of that crumb on the chin of Seventies culture, Jim Davidson. The Dark Side of Fame With Piers Morgan was a lengthy look at his career lowlights – like a two-day guided tour of a public toilet – that culminated with his heartfelt aperçu about women: "I don't like 'em". But at least there is some justice in life, for Davidson, once such a beamish boy, now has a touch of reduced-price sausagemeat about the eyes. The inside is turning out.

Since the Seventies, Tess has got with the programme. Seventies Tess was frail and tragic, deeply resigned to her fate; today's Tess is impetuous and hopeful, with a sense of her own entitlement. Hardy described the "brimfulness" of Tess's nature, and while for Nastassja Kinski this meant threatening to spill tears at any moment, Gemma Arterton brims with life and spirit. Kinski had a fatal refinement (which acid-nibbed critic said she brought a touch of Sloane to the role? I saw an imaginary Puffa and pearls on her ever after) but Gemma Arterton is much more authentically earthy and farouche, gorgeous and perfect in the part - even if it's occasionally too pretty a performance, too charmant. Anyway, all the two Tesses have in common is their lips. Both could out-pout a platypus. The lip-mooching school of acting is clearly here to stay. "I could stand here all day watching you pouting and swearing to yourself," said Alec D'Urberville (Hans Matheson) to Tess. She didn't even try to deny it. "I did not swear!"

It was a lone false note in David Nicholl's otherwise commendably faithful adaptation – you can follow the book page by page. The rural landscapes are as beautiful as Watts or Millais. The only real problem with this adaptation – at least thus far (we're a quarter in) was the dynamic between Alec and Tess, which was far too coupley, flirty and equal; Tess's torment was reduced to something more ambiguous, a date rape under the greenwood tree. Compare and contrast with the leering Lord Lucan figure in Polanski's version, sniffing at Tess like a tiger in moustaches, and you see how much power has been lost from this BBC version which insists that Tess mustn't be a victim. At this rate, the President of the Immortals is more likely to get a kick in the figleaf from Tess.

When Paul Watson and Franc Roddam's 1973 reality documentary The Family aired, it caused a sensation. The Wilkinses of Reading became celebrities; their daughter's wedding, which coincided with the end of the series, was inundated with press, and the purity of the TV experiment was lost.

Not this time. We know better than to let the media become part of the story, and the whole of The Family was in the can before the first episode was broadcast. This time round the programme seems unlikely to cause a sensation. We have become used to this kind of mirror being held up to this kind of life. There was barely an original line of dialogue in the whole first episode. If there had been a scriptwriter you'd have fired her. They spoke in TV clich├ęs. "I hope I don't get attacked!" shouts the daughter, going out on the town after a big row with her parents. "What have we raised?" sighs her father. The family seemed to have spent too long watching My Family.

The Family delivers subtle pleasures, little insights from shifts in mood and flickers across faces that are the true prize of close observation. Compare the huge, dramatic subtlety of this real human behaviour with TV acting – actually, no, don't. The TV actors will start to look as hammy as BeerbohmTree. But The Family would make good time-capsule TV – just as the original The Family would be interesting to see now, hint hint, BBC. It should age well, unlike Jim Davidson.

Merlin is horrible, all relevant and modern. Children tuning in at teatime were treated to a state execution after three minutes. Camelot has Stalinist echoes, Guinevere looks like a supply teacher (her first words were "Call me Gwen") and Merlin arrives at Camelot carrying a bedding roll, like a backpacker arriving at a youth hostel. Oh and the make-up's awful, too. Well, if telly won't give children something beautiful and escapist, there's always TH White.

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