The Woman in White … with a #Me­Too mes­sage

The BBC’s new Sun­day evening pot­boiler, The Woman in White, could not be more timely, say its cre­ators

The Observer - - News - Sarah Hughes

It is one of the great pot­boil­ers of the Vic­to­rian era, a glo­ri­ous melo­drama of mis­taken iden­tity, ma­nip­u­la­tion and mur­der. Now a new BBC adap­ta­tion of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, start­ing next Sun­day, hopes to res­onate in to­day’s world by speak­ing di­rectly to the #Me­Too gen­er­a­tion.

“The themes of The Woman in White very much res­onate in our so­ci­ety,” says scriptwriter Fiona Seres of the new adap­ta­tion, which stars Olivia Vi­nall as Laura Fair­lie and Jessie Buck­ley as her half-sis­ter Mar­ian Hal­combe. “It’s a clas­sic thriller about ma­nip­u­la­tion, with power as the ul­ti­mate prize, and we’re still see­ing the same struc­tures of male/fe­male and power/money re­la­tion­ships to­day.”

Seres’s script em­pha­sises the par­al­lels. In one scene, Buck­ley’s free­think­ing Mar­ian asks: “How is it that men crush women time and time again and go un­pun­ished?” The ac­tor be­lieves that state­ment will speak strongly to a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence. “I hope re­vis­it­ing sto­ries like The Woman in White will spark more con­ver­sa­tions be­tween men and women [about the na­ture of power],” she says. “And, in do­ing so, en­cour­age us to look at what needs to change now.”

David Thomp­son, the se­ries’ ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, said there had been an aware­ness dur­ing film­ing that Collins’s themes had be­come newly top­i­cal. “We started mak­ing this pre-the Har­vey We­in­stein scan­dal, but these is­sues of con­trol and the way in which men treat women have been sim­mer­ing away for some time,” he said. “Plus, it’s a story with a strong psy­cho­log­i­cal ele­ment, mem­o­rable fe­male char­ac­ters and a rad­i­cal at­ti­tude at heart.”

The Woman in White has been reg­u­larly adapted by the BBC. An ac­claimed 1982 ver­sion saw Diana Quick as Mar­ian and Jenny Sea­grove as Laura; while Thomp­son also ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duced the most re­cent take in 1997, in which Tara Fitzger­ald played Mar­ian with Jus­tine Wad­dell as Laura and An­drew Lin­coln as Wal­ter Har­tright.

“The last ver­sion was only three hours long, and so more lib­er­ties were taken with the plot,” he says. “This time round we could tell the story in a fuller and deeper way. Be­cause of that, it feels both more ur­gent and closer to the essence of the book.”

To boost that sense of ur­gency, di­rec­tor Carl Tib­betts says he looked for in­spi­ra­tion to con­tem­po­rary crime se­ries such as The Miss­ing and the first se­ries of True De­tec­tive. “Such a bold novel re­ally needed a bold ap­proach to the ma­te­rial and sto­ry­telling, one that felt true to the spirit of the book and cap­tured its sus­pense and its out­ra­geous­ness. I also re­ally wanted there to be an in­ves­tiga­tive feel to it.”

Collins in­tended The Woman in White, his fifth novel, as a com­men­tary on the in­equities of the law in Vic­to­rian times and the way mar­ried women had no con­trol over their fi­nances. The twisty plot cen­tres on the fate of Laura, an heiress in the care of her in­ef­fec­tual un­cle (Charles Dance).

Shel­tered and naive, she finds her­self ruth­lessly courted by bru­tal landowner Sir Per­ci­val Glyde (Dougray Scott) to the hor­ror of both her half­sis­ter, Mar­ian, and their re­cently ar­rived tu­tor, Har­tright (Ben Hardy). As the story un­folds, so the ex­tent not only of Sir Per­ci­val’s sins but also those of Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety as a whole be­come clear.

‘Women in the story know the truth but are ei­ther afraid to speak up, or if they do, aren’t heard’ Sarah Cur­tis, pro­ducer

know the truth about what is go­ing on but are ei­ther made afraid to speak up or, if they do, then they’re not heard,” said pro­ducer Sarah Cur­tis. “There are also nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of co­er­cion and of other women used as cover to re­as­sure peo­ple that ev­ery­thing is fine. I think the no­tion of all these women try­ing to be heard yet be­ing pre­vented from speak­ing will re­ally chime with a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence.”

Vi­nall, who plays the in­no­cent Laura, agrees. “The women in this story are con­stantly be­ing pushed down by the men in their world and yet they all, in their dif­fer­ent ways, fight back, even when to do so is to put them­selves in great dan­ger. That’s some­thing that speaks to us par­tic­u­larly strongly to­day.”

The Woman in White starts on BBC One on 22 April at 9pm

Pho­tographs by St­ef­fan Hill

Olivia Vi­nall plays both the ‘woman in white’ (far left) and Laura Fair­lie, pic­tured with Ben Hardy as Wal­ter Har­tright.

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