The writer behind ITV’s forthcoming adaptation of Vanity Fair has defended her decision to include a racist scene from the book in the new period drama, and says she is “proud” of how it has been adapted for a modern audience.
Viewers of the lavish seven-part television adaption, which promises a “modern” take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel, will see the wealthy father of Amelia Sedley launch a racist rant against interracial marriage when the show begins next month.
The inclusion of the scene, where Mr Sedley is played by Simon Russell Beale, has already stirred controversy, but in a interview published in Telegraph on Saturday, screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes said it would have been “cowardly” to remove it.
“In the book it plays out as a private scene between Mr and Mrs Sedley, but we have made an important change so that Sedley’s unpleasant thoughts play out in front of Sam, the black manservant who is unnoticed in the corner, “ she said.
Hughes, who is best known for her work on ITV’s Dark Angel and BBC period drama The Mystery of Edwin Drood, added: “I wanted to show we were in the middle of a white-dominated costume drama and to invite the audience to step into the black guy’s shows. I am really proud of that scene – to take it out would have been cowardly.”
Thackeray’s sprawling 750-page novel satirises the greed and corruption of Victorian society through the relentless rise of heroine Becky Sharp, a woman of dubious heritage who climbs the ladder of Regency society through wit and guile.
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Tom Bateman as Captain Radon Crawley in ITV’s Vanity Fair
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp and Tom Bateman as Captain Radon Crawley in ITV’s Vanity Fair Credit: MAMMOTH SCREEN FOR ITV
Actress Olivia Cooke, 24, who is best known for her roles in Hollywood films including Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, plays Sharp and leads a star-studded cast alongside Michael Palin, Suranne Jones and Martin Clunes.
But, despite the casting of Palin and Clunes, the show has been critised for its youthful casting with 22-year-old Charlie Rowe cast as Amelia’s fiance George Osborne, who leads the charge at the battle of Waterloo, and 28-year-old Claudie Jessie cast as Amelia Sedley.
Hughes said: “I was determined to have young people. Everyone kept suggesting actors in their 30s, but 19th-century literature is all about how a child becomes an adult, so if you start off with someone grown-up, it doesn’t work.
“You look at George, and you think: ‘Oh, grow up! But of course, he never gets the chance. He’s 20 and already commanding men on the battlefield, and that’s really sad.”
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp in ITV’s Vanity Fair
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp in ITV’s Vanity Fair Credit: MAMMOTH SCREEN FOR ITV
The show, which was produced with Amazon Studies, will air next month and is being seen as one of the most eagerly awaited television events of the year. It follows previous adaptations of the novel by Marc Munden for the BBC in 1998 and a version by Mira Nair in 2004, which was adapted by Julian Fellows and starred Reese Witherspoon as Becky.
The latest adaptation hopes to reflect the values of the Victorian age, but also try to engage a younger audience, its creators say.
Cooke told the Telegraph that the drama still relevant in today’s selfie-obsessed, Instagram culture. She said that Becky “would be so self-promoting and she would love social media”. Pop and rock songs are also played over the credits, including Madonna’s Material Girl and Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.
The director, James Strong, said: “Period dramas can sometimes feel like an exclusive club, which certain viewers don’t feel invited to. But Olivia brings a modernity to her portrayal which allows a way in for some sections of the audience.”