‘Birdsong’ screening and Q&A report

Posted Filed under

Controller of BBC drama commissioning Ben Stephenson announced last May that the corporation intends its adaptations of literature to compete with high-profile American dramas like The Wire and Mad Men.

That’s quite a challenge he’s set for the adaptors of Sebastian Faulks’ modern classic Birdsong, a book of which the author himself said, ‘I would be happy if Birdsong is never made into a film,’ and which has foiled several screenwriters’ attempts to translate it to the screen already since its publication in 1993.

Luckily for Mr. Stephenson, the project’s scriptwriter is Abi Morgan, whose literary Midas touch has lent itself to such small-screen gems as The Hour and whose latest cinematic effort, The Iron Lady, is in cinemas now.

Yesterday we went along to the BAFTA screening of BBC One’s upcoming two-part First World War epic in London to see what she and director Philip Martin have made of Faulks’ elusive narrative.

The drama switches between two contrasting periods, the muddy all-male grimness of the trenches of 1916 in which women’s presence is merely implied through shots of letters and hand-knitted gifts, and the languorous feminine world of Amiens, France in 1910 with its saturated floral interiors.

However, as director Philip Martin says, ‘There’s an energy level in the war story that continues in the love story … a level of intensity in the love story that somehow bounces back on the war story’.

There’s no fragmentation either in the narrative or in its aesthetic. The two worlds, different as they may look, share a violence that reveals one to be an off-shoot of the other.

The shadow of pre-war Europe’s destruction is apparent in Isabelle’s (Clemence Poesie) sexual misery that takes place in the beautiful interiors and in the angry demonstrations of the workers laid off from her husband’s factory.

On the classical aesthetic of the 1910 scenes, Philip Martin reveals, ‘We tried to make the French side of the story embody all of the world of civilisation that was going to be destroyed by this war.’ There’s something ominous about all that lushness and sensuality and when the scene of Isabelle and Stephen going away together is followed by a shot of a soldier’s home-made grave you can’t help wondering if their love is going to end as badly as their world does.

On her decision to change the historically consecutive narrative of the novel to one that switches between 1910 and 1916, Abi Morgan comments, ‘It’s such an exquisite book it’s terrifying. What you fundamentally do is you come at it from a completely new angle… it became a much easier task when we worked between the two time zones.’ She explains her juxtaposition of love scenes with war scenes as follows. ‘I think [the story] is about the violence of a love affair.’

If the drama shows the violence hidden in love – and the sex scenes of 1910 have a rawness that Abi Morgan says she couldn’t have shown were she adapting Faulks’ story twenty years ago – the war scenes are surprisingly tender. When a young soldier has his abdomen opened by the force of a shell, the outwardly frozen-hearted and remote protagonist Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) holds his hand and gets him to talk about his sweetheart till he dies.

Inspired for his aesthetic in the 1916 scenes by a book of photos of modern soldiers in Afghanistan called ‘Helmand’, Philip Martin says he wanted to get away from clichés about First World War soldiers as ‘beautiful doomed youth’ embroiled in a class struggle and depoliticise them, depicting them in a more timeless fashion simply as ‘men involved in a situation, trying to make sense of their lives’ .

Actor Jospeh Mawle, who plays Stephen’s comrade and friend Jack Firebrace, even goes so far as to talk about the communal side of war: ‘I was surprised to find how many people actually enjoyed it… There was a real sense of comradery, a real sense of purpose.’

A worthy and distinctly British competitor for the likes of Mad Men, Birdsong begins at 9pm on Sunday 22nd January on BBC One.

Are you looking forward to Birdsong? Let us know below…

> Buy the book on Amazon.

Watch the trailer…