Tuesday 21 November 2017

Faulks adaptation is on Song

birdsong (BBC1, sunday) at your service (RTE1, sunday)

UNLIKE what appears to be half the literate world, I haven't read Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, a much-loved critical and popular favourite that continues to sell thousands of copies a year, 20 years after it was first published.

I'm definitely going to buy it once the BBC's two-part adaptation wraps up next Sunday, though, if only to see what kind of a job screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Philip Martin did on it.

You can never please the purists, of course, but as prestige Sunday-night drama goes, Birdsong is magnetically watchable. It opens in France, in the trenches of the First World War, in 1916.

Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (rising star Eddie Redmayne, who has the kind of cheekbones women love) patrols the muddy, bloody fields, staring into the middle distance with haunted eyes as hollow as spent shell casings.

Suddenly, the story switches back in time to 1910. We're in the same region of France and Stephen is still staring. This time, however, his bright-eyed gaze is fixed on Isabelle (Clemence Poesy), the beautiful second wife of Rene Azmaine (Laurent Lafitte), a rich textile factory owner who has installed new machines at his factory, leaving many workers redundant.

Stephen has come to inspect the efficiency of Rene's operation but ends up inspecting the charms of Isabelle, who's clearly unhappy. Stephen hears her crying at night and it's obvious her relationship with her husband is a violent one.

Then we're back in 1916 again, where an enlisted man called Jack Firebrace (the always excellent Joseph Mawle) leads a team of sappers digging tunnels beneath the German trenches to listen to the enemy. It's a terrifying and dangerous job, as the tunnels frequently collapse and flood with filthy water. Stephen catches Firebrace asleep at his post and summons him to a court-martial, where the punishment is death by firing squad.

But Stephen, his soul and humanity blown apart by war as brutally as the body of a dying soldier he's tended to earlier, lets the turn of a card to determine Firebrace's fate.

Firebrace escapes death and it's just as well, since he will later be the one who rescues Stephen after the latter takes a German bullet in the gut in the tunnels and is left lying, presumed dead, among the corpses.

Birdsong carries on like this, cutting back and forth between the two time periods, as Stephen's increasing dehumanisation is contrasted with his memories of his love for Isabelle, which finally explodes into passion in a grown-up sex scene that's both tender and fiercely erotic and brings her broken relationship with Rene to, no pun intended, a climax.

Whatever about lovers of the book, Birdsong won't, I imagine, be to every viewer's taste.

The romantic element of the story feels unremarkable and the pacing, for the first hour, was leisurely, with long stretches where lingering looks and small touches, rather than words, convey Stephen and Isabelle's feelings.

Yet it's visually striking (even the horrific trench scenes have a painterly quality about them), the performances are excellent and the wartime scenes compelling.

The new series of At Your Service was filmed last spring, before we got to see Francis Brennan in full, flamboyant fusspot mode in his Grand Tour, which was alternately hilarious and annoying, but never less than watchable. So this Francis is still the sober-suited, comparatively buttoned-down version, who tours the country with his brother John, dispensing wisdom and retail tips to B&Bs and small hotels.

This week the boys were advising the owners of The Strand Inn, who haven't been making the most of their fine and spacious establishment in the stunning setting of Dunmore East in Waterford.

Series like this are 10 a penny and usually an utter turn-off, yet the Brennan brothers are so amiable, gently guiding their charges rather than resorting to condescension, hectoring or lecturing, that it's hard not to care about the outcome -- which in this case was a substantial, and deserved, increase in business.

birdsong HHHHI at your service HHHII

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