Written by Jasper Rees
Sarah Waters’ highly praised novels have marched from the page to the screen with regimental regularity and no apparent sacrifice in quality. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, with their big Victorian brushstrokes, were built for television no less than Dickens is. With The Night Watch, adapted last night, her subject was still the love that dare not speak its name. But two things were different. This time Waters’s narrative was compressed into a single film. And it was set in the Blitz, when a modern lady’s drawers could be removed in a flash.
As usual with popular quality fiction, those with a strong loyalty to the original will be posting their objections in the comments box. But clearly this was an efficient filleting by Paula Milne. All the important marks were hit: the terror of discovery for young gay men and women, somewhat alleviated by wartime when everyone was too busy licking Hitler to keep an eye on the same-sex fumblings among pert young flatsharers. In 90 minutes the more sinuous and serpentine coils of Waters’ plotting were sacrificed in the interests of clarity. But something of the structural ambition was preserved as, like Harold Pinter’s portrayal of a love triangle in Betrayal, the story came by its relevations by travelling backwards in time, in this case from 1947 via 1944 and thence to 1941.
Thus in the first section we witnessed the relationship of pretty, shy Helen (Claire Foy) and her more vampish lover Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) run aground on Helen’s jealousy. Three years earlier, now in the midst of the ferocious bombing campaign, we watched Helen fall for Julia, who happened to be the ex of her current lover Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin), an ambulance worker whom we duly saw rescuing Helen from the rubble in the Blitz in 1941. Meanwhile, two parallel stories told troubled siblings. Viv (Jodie Whittaker) was seduced into an affair with a married soldier which led to abortion and disillusionment, while her brother Duncan (Luke Treadaway), a homosexual banged up in the Scrubs after his lover committed suicide, grappled with the shame of his homosexuality in a prison heaving with poufs and conchies.
“Hitler would have you lot strung up by your tits,” one ambulance worker told Kay, perhaps because she’d thumped him three years earlier. So long as his bombs rain down on London Waters’s ladies were fetchingly free to play the field. Kay’s optimism that the peace would bring equal rights for women was of course not borne out. In the script’s hasty final return to 1947 to tie up a bow or two, it was two heterosexual characters who found each other and the promise of happiness, while the gay men and women were consigned by the forces of history, and the resumption of the natural order, to roam once more in the shadows, awaiting their turn. As Duncan was eyed up on a train while Kay unpacked boxes alone, Waters’ climactic argument was that it would be easier for the boys than the girls.
You missed the crashing chords of Rachmaninov, put to service in a better-known wartime tale of forbidden love in buttoned-down Britain. What we saw of London was suitably clad in gloomy greys and browns but for the pair of racy red pyjamas gifted by Kay to Helen. As ever with a drama which tried to fill a large canvas, the television budget did its asphyxiating work. Bombarded London burned and smoked modestly. Kay looked for the body of Helen, presumed buried at the bottom of a heap of miraculously undamaged chairs. Much of the artistry was in the acting – Maxwell Martin, yes, cheekily got up to look like Sarah Waters, but also Whittaker and Foy as women looking for love in the wrong places. In the film’s most novelistic still, Treadaway lay in his prison bunk as an arm dropped down limply from the bunk above, an ambiguous, unreadable invitation to play.