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