Thackeray's Vanity Fair gets a clever update for the millenial age

by Russell Brown / 22 September, 2018
Vanity Fair, Sunday and Monday.

Vanity Fair.

RelatedArticlesModule - Vanity Fair tv show

A new TV version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century satirical novel taps into today's celebrity-Instagram culture. 

That the 2018 dramatisation of Vanity Fair (TVNZ 1, Sunday and Monday, 8.30pm) is not your average British costume romp is evident within its first five seconds, as floating piano chords ease into a slow, haunting version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, the theme tune of the series.

By the end of the second episode, which closes with Madonna’s Material Girl, it’s clear that this year’s model of William Makepeace Thackeray’s anti-hero Becky Sharp is to be interpreted not only as a woman of her times, but of ours, too.

As played by Olivia Cooke (to general, but not universal, acclaim from early reviewers), Becky is a modern girl who finds herself somehow making do in Victorian England. In our first sight of her, she’s grinning ruefully at the camera, making clear that she knows what we know.

Cooke herself hasn’t been shy about connecting the story of the do-what-it-takes social climber Becky to her own. She came up through school and community theatre and was rejected by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (on account, apparently, of her northern accent) and really only broke through when she was cast in the US, where regional accents weren’t an issue.

“If I hadn’t gone over to America, I do wonder if I’d be able to be one of the leads in an ITV drama and not just play one of the maids,” Cooke told the BBC recently. “They’d have wanted Emma Watson instead.”

Becky’s is not the first face we see, however. That’s Thackeray himself, who opens each of the seven episodes as the unreliable narrator of his own tale, played with obvious delight by Michael Palin. He hails the story of “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having”.

If that sounds as much a contemporary theme as a Victorian one, perhaps it is. Writer Gwyneth Hughes acknowledges “connections to today’s celebrity/Instagram culture: the way we’re constantly showing off about our lives rather than living them and grasping for things that are not worth having”.

There’s also a different kind of modern delight, in the richness of the images. With Amazon’s money to spend, the creators present a CGI period London and a loving recreation of that great Victorian superclub, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. When series director James Strong sums it up as “in some ways … a period drama for people who don’t like period drama”, it’s not hard to see what he means.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Auckland waterfront stadium plans revealed
97933 2018-10-19 06:34:37Z Auckland Issues

Auckland waterfront stadium plans revealed

by Rowan Quinn

Plans for a 50,000-seat waterfront stadium in downtown Auckland that would replace Eden Park have been revealed.

Read more
The eclectic range of Kiwi composer Rhian Sheehan
97711 2018-10-19 00:00:00Z Music

The eclectic range of Kiwi composer Rhian Sheehan

by James Belfield

Rhian Sheehan is hitting the road with a collection of intimate tracks – a world removed from soundtracks for theme parks and virtual-reality games.

Read more
Anika Moa's celebrity takes the back seat on soul-baring new LP
97774 2018-10-19 00:00:00Z Music

Anika Moa's celebrity takes the back seat on soul-…

by James Belfield

Anika Moa says she only ever shares “about 5% of what and who I am”. Her new album says otherwise.

Read more
There's only one way to deal with the undignifying symptoms of chronic illnesses
97788 2018-10-19 00:00:00Z Nutrition

There's only one way to deal with the undignifying…

by Ruth Nichol

After she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Shona Daubé learned how to live with chronic illness with a smile.

Read more
50 great Auckland restaurants where you can eat well for less than $50
94144 2018-10-19 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

50 great Auckland restaurants where you can eat we…

by Metro

Here are 50 Auckland restaurants to try that won't break the bank – and tips on what you should order.

Read more
Notes from Cambodia: Is the young democracy sliding back towards dictatorship?
93903 2018-10-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Notes from Cambodia: Is the young democracy slidin…

by James Borrowdale

James Borrowdale looks beneath the shiny surface of modern capitalism in Cambodia.

Read more
Jami-Lee Ross' deeply ugly practice of taping could still snare Simon Bridges
97923 2018-10-18 14:50:17Z Politics

Jami-Lee Ross' deeply ugly practice of taping coul…

by Jane Clifton

First it was: follow the money. Now it’s cherchez la femme. Wherever the Jami-Lee Ross conflagration takes us next, Ross will go down in history.

Read more
Stop the truck! Pūhā & Pākehā gets a new Grey Lynn home
97905 2018-10-18 11:55:17Z Auckland Eats

Stop the truck! Pūhā & Pākehā gets a new Grey Lynn…

by Kate Richards

Founders of popular food truck Pūhā & Pākehā have opened up an eatery in Surrey Crescent offering new interpretations of traditional Māori cuisine.

Read more