Beyond the Pale

The Crimson Petal and the White: BBC Adaptation Starts TONIGHT!

Michel Faber’s The crimson Petal and the White, ticks so many of my boxes I hardly know where to begin. A richly detailed, viscerally engaging, beguilingly written novel that I fell deeply in love with when it first came out. Of course, ever practical, I got it in hardback and schlomped it around with me like a weighty talisman in the increasingly tattered velvet bag I carried everywhere at the time.

The narrative just drips with deliciously rank descriptions of The Great Stink which was Victorian London, the contrast between the perfumed, lace-clad middle classes and the guttersnipes living in utter poverty amidst unthinkable filth of every kind. Just my cup of tea, as regular readers of this blog will readily attest!

Here’s an excerpt from the start of Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, taken from Book Browse (you can read the first ten pages of the novel by following the above link):

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you’re actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people.

And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let’s not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all the desires you’re too shy to name, or at least show you a good time. Now you hesitate, still holding on to me, but tempted to let me go. When you first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now.

It’s an ashen hour of night, blackish-grey and almost readable like undisturbed pages of burnt manuscript. You blunder forward into the haze of your own spent breath, still following me. The cobblestones beneath your feet are wet and mucky, the air is frigid and smells of sour spirits and slowly dissolving dung. You hear muffled drunken voices from somewhere nearby, but what little you can understand doesn’t sound like the carefully chosen opening speeches of a grand romantic drama; instead, you find yourself hoping to God that the voices come no closer.

The main characters in this story, with whom you want to become intimate, are nowhere near here. They aren’t expecting you; you mean nothing to them. If you think they’re going to get out of their warm beds and travel miles to meet you, you are mistaken.

You may wonder, then: why did I bring you here? Why this delay in meeting the people you thought you were going to meet? The answer is simple: their servants wouldn’t have let you in the door.

What you lack is the right connections, and that is what I’ve brought you here to make: connections. A person who is worth nothing must introduce you to a person worth next-to-nothing, and that person to another, and so on and so forth until finally you can step across the threshold, almost one of the family.

That is why I’ve brought you here to Church Lane, St Giles: I’ve found just the right person for you.

Now I am eagerly awaiting the first in a 4-part BBC adaptation which begins tonight on BBC2 at 9pm. I CAN’T WAIT! Well, I mean I can wait, I suppose, because it’s not going to be shown before then and I doubt the BBC are going to courier a DVD copy over to me, either. The rotters.

Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant, Shirley Henderson, Amanda Hale and Mark Gatiss star in a bold four-part adaptation of The Crimson Petal And The White adapted from Michel Faber’s best selling novel by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and directed by award-winning Marc Munden (The Devil’s Whore, The Mark Of Cain), produced by Origin Pictures for the BBC.

A tale of love, lust, desire and revenge, it reveals the true sexual politics of Victorian life. In the words of the heroine, Sugar: “If you dare enter this world, you had better tread carefully.”

As ever, when someone films or in any way adapts a favourite book, one is struck with an initial shivering thrill of excitement. This is followed hot on the heels by that slowly sinking dread that they are absolutely bound to bugger it up. Oh, they are going to RUIN IT for you; and that if they do, you’ll shake your fist at the skies, shouting “Why, God, WHY did you let these incompetent curs loose on my favourite book/film/other thing?” and then you’ll write a letter to the Guardian’s Media section, treating the editor to a frame-by-frame critique, entitled Everything That is Wrong with This Adaptation and including that well-worn line “I cannot believe the BBC have spent MY license fee on this utter drivel”, as though you, alone, fund The BBC and are entitled to personally approve of every single thing they produce.

But I digress.

Imagine how scary it must be to have written that novel, and to be watching your ‘baby’ reborn on TV. Luckily, Michel Faber entirely approves and was actually incredibly moved by the adaptation.

A few days ago, watching a TV show, I got tears in my eyes. That doesn’t happen very often. For a start, I haven’t watched television for many years, and also, it takes a lot to make me cry. My own private sorrows can make me weep, and occasionally a song can penetrate my defences (June Tabor’s “A Proper Sort of Gardener” does it to me every time), but when it comes to novels or on-screen narratives, I’m tough to crack. Pathos and poignancy are, to me, tactics and techniques; in my work as a writer, I fetch them from my toolbox and use them as required. Show me a tear-jerking movie, and I’ll sit stony-faced, analysing the hell out of it. “Oh yes, this is the bit where they hope people will start sniffling. Not badly done at all, I suppose, for this sort of thing. I’d rate it a 6/10. Maybe even a 7.” Yet a few days ago, sitting in front of the TV, I got choked up… I was anxious what TV would have done to my baby in the BBC’s adaptation, but its new artistic guardians have treated it very well indeed.

You can read his reaction in full in the piece he wrote for The Guardian today.

I am currently finalising my choices for an Etsy Treasury inspired by The Crimson Petal and the White (a themed, curated collection of items available at Etsy) and shall hopefully publish this in the next couple of days, after I’ve seen the programme and can let you know what I think of it!

Now, must be off as I’m trying to combine cooking Jambalaya, ironing and looking at delicious things on Etsy.

Until next time, darlings

Yours excitedly,

Miss Nightingale



14 Comments so far
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Is it really necessary to show this kind of programme on national TV? I am sure the Licence fee could be put to better use.

Comment by Irene

Thank you for reading my post so closely 🙂

Comment by beyondthepaleblog

Each to his own.

For myself,I find The Crimson Petal a riveting story,well and poignantly acted,spearheaded by the excellent Romola Garai as intuitive,strong minded prostitute Sugar.Without Miss Garai,this production would not be half as watchable,although much credit should go to Amanda Hale as Agnes Rackham(facially similar to Alanis Morrisette)and Richard E Grant as sinister Dr Curlew.

A modern- day Dickensian drama,Crimson Petal has masses going for it,and should certainly be in line for a tv drama award in 2011.

Comment by Juliet R

This oafish rendition of Victorian Gothic melodrama ticks so many clichés one hardly knows where to begin. Any idea that this is a fresh, modern take on the period, or some kind of step forward in the way television deals with costume drama, sinks in a quagmire of clumsy sensationalism. Pantomime characters, gaudily over-painted, a plot that positively reeks of period stereotyping and direction to match… laughable and depressing, the work of fools or charlatans.

Comment by Steve Pope

Tina: Oh I’m so glad you also enjoyed it, I think it’s been very well done overall. 🙂

Steve: I rather tend to think of ‘Victorian Gothic Melodrama’ as full of “Pantomime characters” who are “gaudily over-painted” and reeking of stereotyping. One doesn’t tend to think of Victorian Gothic Melodrama as being, say, down-to-earth, minimalistic realism – so the fact that it’s full of “cliches” sort of defines it even more as Victorian Melodrama, for me. Though no doubt I’m incorrect. Being a lover of Dickens, who never let the chance for a good ol’ cliche or piece of gaudily over-painted melodrama pass him by, I was bound to also enjoy this pastiche. The Victorians did so adore a heart-wrenching, hand-wringing gaudily-over-painted Gothic melodrama, too, so I think it’s all rather effective. If it had been done, say, in the style of Alan Ayckbourn, it really wouldn’t have worked very well.

I haven’t heard anyone saying it’s a fresh take on the Victorian period, though perhaps some have claimed it as they always seem to; however, you obviously have far more refined tastes than I, and I do hope you find something superior to whet your appetitite. I really enjoy it, and I loved the book, too. I always think it’s a jolly good job that one person’s tastes alone don’t entirely dominate the schedule, as it would make things even more dull and insipid than they already are.

We must, obviously, agree to disagree.

I should imagine this entire blog rather upset you, because I would like The Crimson Petal and the White to be even more gaudy and over-painted if possible. 🙂

Comment by beyondthepaleblog

It ticks all my boxes too! Recording it so I can watch it over and over again. So dark, gothic, gives me goose bumps!

Comment by TinaDiva

I thought this adaptation was excellent. People take this stuff too seriously. As Faber himself advised, if you love the book so much, then just treat the adaptation as something else and don’t confuse the two. Keep the book in your heart and let yourself enjoy the programme. Too often people actively want to hate a television adaptation of their favourite book, just to prove how sensitive they are and as a way of claiming the book almost as their own property. I was happily surprised by this film, the acting, directing and design are fantastic and I’m completely won over. Ya-boo-sucks to those who disagree!

Comment by Martin Greaves

Hear hear,Mr Greaves!

Comment by Juliet R

This show, it’s narrative and the actors/characters therein, has so far been enthralling (ep.1&2). Loving the cinematography, costumes and beautifully gothic backdrops. It’s a pleasure to watch and I await its conclusion with bated breath. The Actors have all been superb but Romola Garai & Gillian Anderson are irredeemably excellent.

Comment by kevin mongan

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I am absolutely loving this series! I think it’s very well acted, the story is captivating and I particularly love the characterisation – they are totally believable – which makes it very watchable! Whilst I can’t wait for the final episode, I am sad there is only 1 left!

Comment by Marsbar

An entrancing adaptation, brilliantly acted and absolutely riveting. But the sound – far too difficult to hear all the dialogue and I’m not writing as someone hard of hearing. Was it mixed on headphones or never checked against domestic speakers as opposed to studio monitors. The sound is as important as the pictures with such rich writing.

Comment by Edprogs

Oh, thank you for mentioning the dialogue. I kept increasing the volume of my set to no avail. I finally just decided to relax and enjoy this fascinating drama.

Comment by joyce

I was going to buy the book then realised it had been made into a drama – I have really enjoyed the, Im out of the country for the final episode and gutted that I will have to wait for it!
Any mention of it being melodramatic must surely be a compliment – its a story for goodness sake and given that the lead character is a victorian prostitute it should be dark and dramatic!
Fantastic series, costumes, cinematography and story line – Irene – this is what I pay my tv licence for.
I had one small reservation and anyone who watched The IT Crowd may understand – Chris ODowd was a bit of a surprise for the lead male? Turns out he is not bad as the weak, snivelling Bill.
For those of you who have read and enjoyed the book I can recommend ‘in the company of the courtesan’ by Sarah Dunant, an equally grubby yet colourful and rich story of a prostitute in renaissance venice, bloody brilliant.

Comment by Joanne

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