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Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie and Amanda Abbington as DI Louise Munroe in Masterpiece Mystery's Case Histories. (Steffan Hill/BBC)
Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie and Amanda Abbington as DI Louise Munroe in Masterpiece Mystery's Case Histories. (Steffan Hill/BBC)

John Doyle: Television

When good books are adapted for TV, expect mixed reviews Add to ...

There are issues that are bourgeois, like tut-tutting about Don Cherry. Then there are issues that are truly, emphatically bourgeois. So, today, let’s deal with one of the latter – that great and enduring topic, film and TV adaptations of our favourite books. Oh what fun we’re going to have.

Now then: If you’re a fan of up-market British thrillers, and it seems everybody is in this neck of the woods, you’ll want to know that an adaptation of the crime novels of Kate Atkinson begins airing this weekend.

Previous columns by John Doyle

Case Histories (Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, 9 p.m.) is a multipart series based on those Atkinson novels that feature the battered and inordinately put-upon private investigator Jackson Brodie. Jason Isaacs plays Brodie and he’s a terrifically handsome, moody and sensitive PI. Also, he never wastes an opportunity to take off his shirt and allow ladies to gaze at length upon his manly torso. This latter aspect of the production has caused some lady reviewers and columnists in Britain to swoon unashamedly. Some admitted to drooling. No male reviewer could be as raw in admiration of a woman on TV, but that’s another mystery to be solved.

The thing is, if you have read Atkinson’s novels, you’re not going to be quite as pleased as those viewers who haven’t. Me, I’ve read and admired them much. Atkinson’s spiky prose, regular asides of clever sarcasm and Brodie’s subtle cheekiness are wonderfully delivered in the books. Simultaneously, the books deal with serious matters and grim crimes but they are never unduly sombre.

This TV version is, in contrast, often funereal. Also, it’s set entirely in Edinburgh, which looks gorgeous, but in the books Brodie only eventually makes his way to Scotland in pursuit of an unreliable actress (aren’t they all!) and gets involved in local shenanigans. And then there’s the matter of Brodie’s past. This comes out slowly in the books. Eventually, readers know that Brodie’s sister died when he was a boy and that his brother punished himself in terrible self-blame. In the TV series, this would appear to be the major event in Brodie’s life. About every 20 minutes, he’s recalling that terrible moment from the distant past.

There are other oddities too. Atkinson once said in an interview that Brodie is, “secretly a woman. He's my authorial voice. I just use him as me.” In the context of the novels, this makes sense. On TV, Jackson is so robustly male, macho-sexy and given to tough-guy heroics that Atkinson’s remark seems dubious.

Some delights do remain. In the opening mystery, Brodie is searching for a lost cat, a chore he’s doing for a very cranky old lady. Soon enough he’s in the sway of the lady’s neighbours, a pair of sisters, one an actress named Julia and, by heavens, is she ever the femme fatale. Natasha Little, who is framed, lit and filmed to look almost as beautiful as the old architecture of Edinburgh, plays Julia with exquisite aplomb. Attentive viewers of good Brit TV adaptations may remember Little as a very fine Becky Sharp in a great adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair some yeas ago. But I digress. Actresses with knowing eyes will do that to a chap. Ask Brodie.

Anyway, in Atkinson’s novels, Brodie is essentially defined by his relationships with women. This is characteristic of a female writer with a keen eye for male indulgences. But here, on TV, Brodie is just drowning in women – the missing, the dead, the angry and the forlorn women. Apart from the dead, most of them undress him with their eyes and greet him with a look that says, “Hello, sailor!” It’s too much. That’s not how I imagined it at all.

And there’s the rub. Had I read Colin Dexter’s Morse novels before seeing John Thaw as Inspector Morse on TV, I would probably have been as cantankerous. And then there’s his sidekick Lewis, who isn’t all like the Kevin Whately character on TV. At all. But I didn’t read them first and enjoyed the Morse TV mysteries immensely.

Thus, some of you who adore those adult, witty British crime dramas will take great pleasure in Case Histories. It’s only natural. Devoted readers of the books will find fault. It’s worse than weighing up a movie version of a favourite novel. The TV thing goes on for weeks and there will probably be a second series next year. Never mind Don Cherry, this is an important, worrying issue.

AIRING TONIGHT

POV: Ella Es el Matador (PBS, 9 p.m.) is an excellent doc about female matadors in Spain. It explores how Spanish gender roles are defined by the image of the male matador and then profiles two female matadors currently performing. To some, the sport is off-putting if not disgusting, and yet here are two women pursuing a dream of accomplishment in that very strange arena.

Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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