In 1993, the BBC produced Lady Chatterley: a four-part dramatisation of the DH Lawrence novel directed by Ken Russell, starring Joely Richardson in the title role and Sean Bean as her gamekeeper lover Mellors.
A generation of horny teenagers tuned in, but in spite of the workmanlike woodland grunting from Bean (not to mention the infamously dreadful post-coital line, ‘We come off together that time – it’s good when it’s like that’) and both leads flashing enough flesh to upset the Broadcasting Standards Council, the series was about as sexy as a press conference by Iain Duncan Smith.
Flash forward 22 years and BBC One has once again commissioned an adaptation of Lawrence’s most notorious publication – this time from Hartswood Films, the makers of Sherlock.
Written and directed by Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio, this new one-off 90-minute version mercifully ditches Russell’s camp cavorting in favour of something more restrained, melancholy … poetic, even.
The racy scenes are reined in, Mellors’s passion is more brooding than explosive and Lady Constance Chatterley’s clothes remain mostly on. Sex remains a vital part of the story, but it’s handled with a sensitivity that Ken Russell probably wouldn’t know if it started rolling around naked in front of a fireplace with him.
Holliday Grainger’s portrayal of Constance is superb. The stereotypical Lady Chatterley of legend – a bored, upper-class housewife looking for a bit of rough – is nowhere to be seen; Grainger makes her a complicated, convincing human being: sympathetic, playful, lonely, dutiful and conflicted.
When her husband Clifford (Happy Valley star James Norton) is paralysed from the waist down during the Great War, Connie takes care of him as much out of love as loyalty. ‘You will always have me,’ she assures him after he makes a despairing attempt to blow his own brains out – but things change.
Lord Chatterley – at least, at the outset – is also a refreshing change from the bitter, resentful invalid cliché that the character has been lumbered with in the popular consciousness. Norton’s performance is energetic and engaging: once over the initial misery of his condition, he throws himself into his work with gusto, climbing up the tower at the coalmine he owns and driving around in his motorised three-wheeler.
Connie is happy at first, but something is missing. Clifford’s injuries have left him impotent – their physical relationship is zero. Enter the Chatterleys’ new gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones), and sparks are soon flying across the social divide. Not so much trouble at mill as trouble in forestry estate.
Of the principal roles, it’s the eponymous lover of Lady Chatterley who most resembles his 1993 predecessor – although whereas Bean was bluff and brusque, Madden is morose and malistic.
Yorkshire surliness is his default setting (‘Pipe down, you daft bitch!’ he snaps at one point – thankfully to his dog), but there are deeper emotions at work underneath the crotchety exterior. Loneliness, insecurity and fear of the modern world plague Mellors like ants at a jam spill and Madden makes a decent fist of keeping his character’s problems bubbling just below the surface.
He also spends a lot of time with his shirt off, doling out blatant entendres about ‘banging’ and talking both about and to his penis. It’s as ludicrous a notion as it sounds, and if there’s anywhere this otherwise enjoyable adaptation falls down, it’s in the dialogue.
The language of Lawrence might not have been rewritten to sound like a WhatsApp group chat, but there’s still something very modern about all the innuendo and snarky back-and-forths – something very Steven Moffat-like, in fact, as if this is a protracted scene cut from the forthcoming Victorian-set episode of Sherlock. It’s not bad, exactly, but it feels incongruous in what is otherwise a very faithful historical recreation. Did people of such wildly differing social classes really chat so freely about shagging in 1920?
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 6 September on BBC One.
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