by Allan Fish
(UK 1988 178m) DVD1
200 years Brangwen and 16 years Ursula
p Chris Parr d Stuart Burge w Anne Devlin novel D.H.Lawrence ph John Kenway ed John Rosser m Simon Rogers, John Tams art Myles Lang cos Sue Peck
Imogen Stubbs (Ursula Brangwen), Kate Buffery (Winifred Inger), Tom Bell (Old Tom Brangwen), Martin Wenner (Anton Skrebensky), Jon Finch (Uncle Tom), Jane Gurnett (Anna Brangwen), Colin Tarrant (Will Brangwen), Clare Holman (Gudrun Brangwen), Eileen Way (Lydia Brangwen), Fabia Drake (Aunt Olga), Sarah Crowden (Catherine Phillips),
As my fingers hit the keyboard at the back end of 2008 this celebrated BBC adaptation of D.H.Lawrence’s seminal work is still not available on DVD in the UK, and is only available as an effective extra on the US BBC DVD of The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (I know which is the major work). It has suffered from being made at the same time as Ken Russell’s film version, yet I don’t think even Ken would say his film was in the same league. That film could be seen as a prequel to his earlier Women in Love (based on a later Lawrence novel about the same pair of sisters), and wasn’t worthy of his earlier work. Lawrence isn’t the easiest of authors to translate to the screen, a wordy devil at times, and though there have been decent films of his work (the aforementioned Women in Love especially, but also Jack Cardiff’s neglected Sons and Lovers, while Chris Miles’ The Virgin and the Gypsy has its devotees), to me this stands with the best interpretation of his work on screen.
Lawrence’s original which tells a story of three generations of a family, is condensed into the story of Ursula Brangwen, one of five children living in the Nottinghamshire mining heartland at the turn of the century, and sees her growing up from wondrous sixteen year old to a fully grown-up woman who has experienced the love of both sexes, an aborted engagement and various other trials and tribulations. Hints of the earlier generations’ stories can be gathered in the opening, dream-like sequence where her grandfather drowns when a local river bursts its banks. The raging torrents of floodwater can, in retrospect, be seen as a metaphor for the raging impulses lurking beneath Ursula’s exterior, of longing, desire, and excitement at the journey ahead.
It must be remembered that this production was made in the pre-digital era, so visually the film is not as polished as later classic novel adaptations, but there is still a visual poetry to proceedings provided by the use of moonlight in the piece. The moral majority were outraged at the nude bathing sequence between Ursula and her lesbian lover, but it and several other explicit nude or love scenes, in being shot at night, capture the romanticism of the heroine’s view of love. At one point, about to have sex on a grassy bank, she summons her lover to the top to make love under the moonlight, while on another she wades naked into a mist-covered pond under the full moon, Ursula symbolically trying to capture the moon’s reflection in her hands as her lover follows her into the water. It is, quite simply, one of the most idyllically romantic sequences in eighties television, and any complaints directed towards the production, from the same fools who attacked Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and would later attack Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, redefine priggish prudishness. And despite the limitations of small-screen shooting of the period, there’s a real sense of time and place, of the industrial heartland of the colliery towns and the carpets of smoke that nestle over the rooftops. There’s also a distinct admiration for the power of nature, and of human nature, all exemplified in the figure of the central protagonist. As Ursula, RSC stalwart Stubbs is exceptional, pitch-perfectly providing the first-person narration and superbly capturing the quizzical wonderment and anticipation of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and making the film that, without her, might merely have been very good, into something worth treasuring as not only worthy of the original source but one of the great studies of sexual awakening in television history.