Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Barbara Vine Mysteries

The sad news yesterday that celebrated crime writer Ruth Rendell had passed away at the age of 85 meant I decided to write up a series of reviews on the trio of TV adaptations the BBC undertook in the early '90s of the novels she wrote under her pen name of 'Barbara Vine'. These adaptations are available to buy on DVD both individually and as a boxset entitled The Barbara Vine Mysteries.

My favourite of these is the first to be made, A Fatal Inversion from 1992. A really masterful transition from book to screen and a incredibly classy, absorbing production.

Oh and there's another reason why I love it too.

Saira Todd *sighs* 

Soooo gorgeous. 

I've had a crush on her since my late teens really, thanks to the TV series Playing The Field (it certainly explains why one of my exes bore a really good likeness to her) and, whilst I have the very vaguest of recollections of this from '92, I can't say for certain if I truly watched it, and perhaps I wasn't as wide awake to her attractiveness as the 12 or 13 year old I was back then. 

Adam and his best friend Rufus are reunited after several years apart when the bodies of a woman and child are discovered in the pet cemetery near Wyvis Hall, the place Adam inherited ten years previously - the last time he saw Rufus. But which of the women who stayed there that summer is it? Whose child? And what part did the childlike Zosie have to play in it all?

I heartily recommend this one. Everything is perfect; the source material, the script, the direction and the acting...all perfect and the atmosphere - that feeling of the long hot last summer of youth before real adulthood, employment and a very fatal disaster beckons - is also brilliantly captured.

Douglas Hodge and Jeremy Northam are perfect as the almost neo-Brideshead style yuppies to be, each laddish yet crucially ignoring the secret attraction they both feel for one another, with Hodge's Adam a perfect creation of twitchy gaucheness and Northam's medical student Rufus possessing that crucial almost cruel detachment and ruthless black humour those in such a profession require. But its the beautiful Saira Todd who impresses the most, and not just for her looks. Her role as the complex and mysterious and quirky Zosie is a tricky part but she handles it with aplomb - in many ways its far more enjoyable than Beatrice Dalle's similar turn in Betty Blue. They're ably supported by Clara Salaman, Julia Ford and Gordon Warnecke (the best I've seen him in fact) and there's appearances from a very young Philip Glenister and Ben Chaplin.

In Gallowglass - which came along in 1993 - a young Michael Sheen makes his major TV debut as Joe, a vulnerable and mentally ill young man who has spent most of his live in care and foster homes. When he's once again declined permission to live with yet another foster family, he attempts suicide by throwing himself in the path of a London tube train. Stopping him in this attempt is Sandor, an  intelligent, assured and charismatic young man played by Paul Rhys. In saving his life, Sandor quickly makes it clear that Joe now belongs to him and Joe, only to happy to feel like belonging and to gain friendship of any kind, is only too happy to do his bidding as a 'gallowglass', the servant to Sandor's chief.

Sandor reveals to Joe that some years earlier in Italy he had taken part in the kidnapping of a former model and wife of a rich old man, Nina (Arkie Whiteley). He recruits Joe, and Joe's 'sister' (a fellow orphan) Tilly, played brilliantly by Claire Hackett, into his plot to kidnap her again; though does not reveal his real intentions for wanting Nina - he loves her, had sex with her during the first kidnapping, and believes she loves him. 

The beautiful Nina is now living in a heavily guarded residence with another sugar daddy husband (Gary Waldhorn) and many servants including failed teacher and single parent Paul Garnet played by John McArdle who begins to develop feelings for Nina himself, feelings that she returns.

Gallowglass follows the usual 'Vine' themes of control and manipulation, with strong characters having a hold over weaker ones and produces a typical dark, psychological thriller with disturbed and dangerous protagonists on the fringes of society who care little for its conventions. It's fair to say that even at this incredibly early stage of his career Sheen delivers a solidly impressive and sympathetic performance, but the real honours here must go to Paul Rhys who plays the scheming Sandor with the right amount of brooding intensity. He would meet his lover, Whiteley here on set and, when she battled adrenal cancer he helped nurse her until her premature and tragic demise in 2001.  The only weak link in Gallowglass' casting is John McArdle; he doesn't convince at all as being attractive on any level to Whiteley's character, fails to hide his obviously scouse accent despite playing a character from East Anglia and whilst he passes muster as a failed teacher lacking in confidence, he doesn't fit the bill at all as being someone who Sandor refers to as looking like 'a hard bastard' and one he 'wouldn't like to meet on a dark night'.

Unlike the previous adaptations A Dark Adapted Eye which came along a year later in 1994 is a period piece that dates from the war years of the 1940s right through to the 1960s. Director Tim Fywell (who helmed all three adaptations) delves deep into the traditional look of the Sunday night murder mystery thriller this time around. 

Our heroine is Faith Severn played by Helena Bonham-Carter (with Honeysuckle Weeks playing the younger version of her) whose adult life is deeply affected and dogged by the scandal surrounding the two Aunts she stayed with during the war, Vera and Eden, played by Celia Imrie and Sophie Ward. When Vera gives birth it drives an irreparable wedge between the previously very close sisters which turns from animosity to conflict and lastly to murder.

A Dark Adapted Eye is a haunting and engrossing story of the two strange sisters and their fate seen through the eyes of their niece and in the devastating results the actions of Vera has for the entire extended family. Despite not having a contemporary setting, the film still holds to the themes that 'Vine' routinely explored, most notably here the notion that the past will always shape, for better or worse, the present and continue to damage and hurt those who participated or who were merely close to the events. 

A solid cast headed up by Bonham Carter, and featuring similar early appearances from the likes of Steven Mackintosh and Ciaran Hinds, and Fywell's strong but unshowy direction makes this adaptation an engrossing and enjoyable one if a bit formulaic and convoluted. It remains perfect for Sunday viewing but overall if I had to recommend just one of the Barbara Vine adaptations it would be A Fatal Inversion - I really love that one.

RIP Ruth Rendell aka Barbara Vine.


  1. Now Squire, I've ransacked YT for 'The Police' and come up dry. Any suggestions?

    1. Yup, they've took it down :(

  2. Replies
    1. I've uploaded it to YT myself now. Watch it here