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.

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