A blast from the past

Wil­liam Make­peace Thack­eray’s 19th-cen­tury satir­i­cal novel is clev­erly crafted into a TV se­ries for the millennial age.


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.

Van­ity Fair, Sun­day andMon­day.

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