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Monday, 28 April 2014

Jamaica Inn (TV 2014/ Episode 1 of 3) // "Enticing to lovers of the macabre and the twisted" ~ a dark and sulky adaptation of the Du Maurier classic causes a storm at the BBC!

* Some plot spoilers in the barrels of brandy washed up on the shore below ~ watch before reading! *
A storm in a salty smuggler's rowing boat greeted the first of a three part dramatization for the BBC of Daphne du Maurier's classic Cornish bodice and barrel-burner - Jamaica Inn, with thousands of complaints apparently received at the BBC that the dialogue was so mumblecore it was hard to understand what was being said.

Other actors across social media, especially those whose own characters in other shows come complete with over-stylised accents anyway - from the chap who played Boycie in Only Fools and Horses to Al Murray, the Pub Landlord - took to Twitter to poke fun. If there wasn't some irony in that last sentence alone, I may as well run for the marshes with a keg of cherry brandy between my legs and never return.

In the week this new TV drama was broadcast, the media also reported how the real Jamaica Inn, an 18th Century coaching inn once owned by Alistair McLean, had been purchased by a businessman from Surrey who planned to spend five days a week in the place, serving up ale and presumably indulging in a spot of smuggling on the side. Fair play to the man, so long as he doesn't turn the place into a gastropub, or get Heston Blumenthal to work on the menu (now the man himself is no longer 'saving' Britain's Little Chef's from a fate worse than snail porridge).

Jamaica Inn, Part 1, was actually brilliantly dark, dank and repulsive - everything the BBC probably isn't; you can see why Middle England is so wound up that the cast don't speak proper and growl too much, with that arrogant, threatening, Cornish accent that some who live in the area have also said isn't authentic in any way, shape or mumble.
So what? As an interpretation of a powerful, gothic novel the darkly-lit scenes and almost seething way the dialogue is delivered by many of the cast (but not all) seems entirely appropriate to a serial that focuses mainly on the violence, the mystery and the poverty of a desperate existence where close friends are quite effortlessly sacrificed in favour of the greater good - the smuggling life of Riley. This is a story about a girl who loses her parents and starts work in an old inn belonging to her Aunt and Uncle - a place that is closed to everyone except those that need to be there; which is basically just smugglers.
There's no profit made at the Inn - as no profit is needed; it's a cover for that smuggling stuff, the beer probably watered down anyway as everyone in town drinks the locally imported brandy either as a medicinal cure for their rheumatism or just because there's so much of the stuff being dragged to the shore (I hope that the history of Jamaica Inn being traditionally run without need for profit doesn't put off the Surrey businessman who bought it!).

The place is also only frequented by men, so cue the prettiest girl for miles around as the new arrival in the village to work there - what could possibly go wrong? It's all clearly going to end in tears - or even just a quick dunking in the sea. And you do indeed get both, and worse, by the time the end credits roll.
This Jamaica Inn isn't a swashbuckling, romantic kind of place, as you might expect from your average costume drama on the BBC - it's full of threatening characters, dirty toilets and disgusting sanitation (references to wiping a customer's backside after he comes out of the Inn's outside loo showing why none of us should ever complain about the state of a Wetherspoon's toilet again) and the threat that if you don't fit in - you will disappear in the night faster than a barrel of brandy off a trading ship passing by the local shoreline.

The story starts with the young and wildly gorgeous (you can hear the growls of appreciation among the Jamaica Inn regulars already) Mary Yellan (Jessica Brown Findlay) travelling to her Aunt and Uncle's Cornish inn by the coast after her mother dies and she is left on her own (it seems her father was killed by smugglers when she was very young). Aunt Patience (Joanne Whalley in a finely judged portrayal of supportive wife with a tragic secret splitting the cracks of her smile) is kind and welcoming but the man she has married is more mentally scarred than the kind of wound he slices into those who cause trouble after hours.
Both Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss (Sean Harris, giving as naturalistically violent and outstanding a performance as a BBC costume drama could ever dare hope for) are at the mercy of a shadowy figure who haunts the Inn at night; lurking down twisting and labyrinthine corridors, out of sight. Like the Universal black and white gothic horrors of the 1930s and those old dark house runarounds; Jamaica Inn is no less enticing to lovers of the macabre and the twisted; while no gothic giant frog lurks around the maze-like corridors of the Inn, someone clearly equally nasty, if not as slimy, does.

With a mood to match all kinds of classic gothic chillers from Cat People to The Cat and the Canary, the BBC surprise with this unexpectedly bleak, cold, and frequently muddy, marshy delight, the perfect antidote perhaps to everything that the popular, far more sedate likes of Downton Abbey on the other side stand for. Like a tortured dirty waif of a bad sister to the BBC's other more sedate costume dramas of the past, it's little surprise that certain sections of the British mainstream media have joined with the silly criticism that the cast 'don't speak like they should' - Eliza Doolittle herself would be ashamed at the nonsense of such a critique.
Criticism of language barriers also may have helped seal the fate of the BBC's Victorian East End-set Ripper Street, with its deliberately authentic lingo and violence that was hardly gratuitous but was often suggested as such in, of course, the Daily Mail, who also complained that you couldn't hear what the actors were saying (notice a trend here?).

Campaign groups and even the BBC hierarchy have asked - clearly - for greater clarity in the dialogue spoken in TV drama of late, and when many shows are admittedly ruined by the intrusion of high volume soundtrack over the spoken word, they have a point - but TV dramas such as Ripper Street and Jamaica Inn, show an elegance and purpose in their use of script delivery and performance that is entirely different to an accidental misuse of the same.
No surprise that the BBC cancelled Ripper Street when ratings fell against a series of Celebrity Big Brother on the other side (although it has since been saved). It takes real guts to stand behind a show that challenges expectations, and doesn't insult the audience with well-spoken, cultivated gruffness, and that doesn't fake entirely appropriate dark themes - the roughness, corruption and violence that pervades a community, even among friends, that TV dramas like Ripper Street and Jamaica Inn need, to capture the heart of their story.

And there's plenty of roughness, corruption and violence throughout Jamaica Inn for one girl on her own to have to cope with. Among the most promising of young British actresses; Jessica Brown Findlay is refreshingly anti-naïve and almost instantly feisty as orphan girl with a heart of iron; Mary Yellan. It can't have been easy for this girl to toughen up so fast at Jamaica Inn, but seems entirely necessary - starting work behind the bar and cleaning up outside while ankle-deep in mud and a hemline of a heavy skirt that soaks up water to a visible level of dampness going right up to her knees or even thighs at times (a delightful visual touch). She also has to contend with a crazed uncle screaming aloud from night terrors and his (ok - attractive, but equally crazed) brother.

On top of all that, Mary also has to cope with: mysterious strangers lurking outside her window in the dark; acts of random violence by family members; murder in cold blood - and marshland that sucks the unwary deep into the earth before you can finish the sentence: "Cornish pasty and a pint of best please".
Of course, Mary develops enough feistiness to get by well before the episode is out and is soon seen tugging barrels of brandy to the shore alongside all the gruff, tanked-up men from the Inn - actually, she leads at the front, taking most of the strain.

Jessica Brown Findlay is soon to be seen in a new film version of Frankenstein (2015) alongside Daniel Radcliffe; so she's gonna need that backbone she developed at Jamaica Inn. Findlay is a riveting, ravishing delight here as the hot-blooded Mary Yellan and her character is one of the most exciting, broody and fiery characters seen in a TV costume drama in ages; an obvious class act going places (and all this from a former cast member of Downton Abbey and who you may have expected to play a role such as this a lot safer; more 'English rose'; less cuttingly brittle and hot-blooded).

Of a mostly male cast, Sean Harris as Uncle Joss is a simmering, feverish delight as a man with a heart and soul blackened with constant threat and certain death should he ever let it show - sure he mumbles, a lot, but so did Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), so he's in fine company. Uncle Joss isn't a character all that far removed from the casual vindictiveness and irrationality of Kurtz. He's also a man pushed to the brink of madness - barely capable of speaking words out loud, for sense of shame and depression.
Also making a powerful impact (especially in a wonderfully erotic, cheeky and adventurous Episode 2) is sympathetic smuggler Jem, played by Matthew McNulty who even offers Mary a horse, in case she ever needs to escape when things get really bad back at the Inn!

The opening episode of Jamaica Inn then, is the story of innocence corrupted by bad things and a battle for survival in an environment, both natural and man-made, that could consume and kill that innocence forever. It's about a girl getting tough. There are a number of standout scenes: the threat to Mary from a customer who looks ready to rape her in the corner of the bar before last orders get called and the violent, swift resolution of that act (the casual violence here being on show without any shame and the threat of Mary's surroundings suddenly forced into the open without any need for longer dramatic build-up) and the scenes where Mary walks across the marshland in her soaking wet dress when things get too much back for her at the Inn; like a petulant, stroppy child that endear the character to the viewer (as do the times we wait with Mary at the bedroom window; looking out upon the scurrilous night-time deeds of familiar faces in the courtyard outside the Inn).
Also striking is the moment where Mary's sulkiness forcibly lifts and she joins in with the smuggling operation; leading the men at the front with the pulling in of a boat from the sea. All these scenes stay in the head, but none compare to the extended sequence where Mary crawls along corridors and peers through cracks in doors and from under tables at her Uncle's questioning of a fellow smuggler's treachery and the punishment he deals out to suit the crime as a mysterious figure also creeps around them both in the shadows - a stunning piece of direction and old-fashioned gothic chill from director Philippa Lowthorpe. The script, from Emma Frost, heavy on atmospherics and a healthy dose of rebellion - floods Jamaica Inn with lashings of girl-power, as befits a novel from the great dame of gothic literature, Daphne du Maurier.
In this beautiful sore wound of a grey landscape, film speed is raised or slowed down according to mood and the coastal landscapes are painted with a gritty prettiness (cinematography courtesy of Julian Court). An organic, chiming, rhythmic slow beating drum of a soundtrack from Cristobal Tapia de Veer dominates without overwhelming.

There's a sense that this new serialisation goes against the grain of all that a casual viewer might expect to find in yet another adaptation of the Jamaica Inn story, yet it captures the expected mood perfectly with a true kick to the barrel - and to the balls, of costume drama everywhere. A sense of gloomy sexuality and threat dominates from the start.

The accents may not be authentically Cornish, and neither are the locations (the majority of filming took place in Yorkshire) but it hardly matters (in fact, not at all) - because this drama works best as a meditation, certainly in this first episode, on loneliness, oppression and fear. That, my friends - is what gothic is all about. 

At the time of writing, press fever has reached a frenzied peak over viewer complaints over 'sound issues', with the BBC initially blaming a technical fault and even production crew considering the same, until the sound-corrected second episode had the same apparent 'problem' The previous criticism of technical failings upon transmission resulted in an angry response from sound technicians at the BBC who denied any issues at all with original transmission and prompted the BBC's Head of Drama Commissioning to comment instead that, among the possible causes of the problem, actors not being clear with their delivery may have played a part.

The director of Jamaica Inn herself - Philippa Lowthorpe, had also earlier been quoted as saying: "A lot of the time it’s not about what the characters are saying, it’s about what they are not saying" which still didn't seem to soften the blow. With BBC sound unions getting involved and defending their members and even the shape of modern TVs eventually being blamed, I have to say - I understood pretty much every word of every episode, except for the few times when I didn't think I needed to; when the dramatic intensity of a scene didn't need me to. I foresee a future in BBC drama where we all go back to speaking like they once did on Blue Peter. In properly. Clipped. Tones.

If the good standing of this expertly unhinged, sulky, tormented version of Jamaica Inn from production company Origin Pictures is tarnished because of a measly, silly bandwagon of a reaction in some of the media (a reaction targeting actors working at their craft to create an atmosphere where seething passions are often spoken through barely contained outpourings of rage and occasionally pursed and secretive lips) - it will be a criminal shame.
There's a limited lifespan on TV drama; serials go past their sell by date very quickly, and what seems like fun at the time, rarely reacts well to repeated viewing - everyone loses interest. There's also a respected 1939 Hitchcock directed film version of Jamaica Inn for this production to contend with, and be compared alongside. But as a spirited adaptation of a classic gothic novel, this Jamaica Inn does Daphne du Maurier proud and adds something new to previous versions; something much more angry. It's on DVD from the end of May. Go smuggle a copy if you want to see it before.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

Jamaica Inn Images © Origin Pictures/ BBC

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