Great LezBritain: Review of “The Night Watch”


Great LezBritain is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

The recent adaptation of The Night Watch on BBC2 is the fourth of Sarah Waters five books to have made the transition from page to screen, while her fifth book, The Little Stranger, will be made into a feature film sometime soon.

Waters is now undoubtedly a literary powerhouse. Her books have been lifted from the gay section of bookshops into the laps of straight women who might possibly be called Felicity and work in an office accounts department. Her previous adaptations, most notably Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith were mightily successful, earning high ratings and high DVD sales. So in short, Waters seems a sure thing. So, with all that said, why the devil did the BBC not deem The Night Watch worthy of more screen time?

The Night Watch is Waters first foray into the 1940s and is full of glum and beautiful, unorthodox wartime stories told in reverse from 1947 to 1941 through a series of subtle, captivating characters, all of whom are struggling, in the own ways, with their identity in a world that is crumbling around them.

Anna Maxwell Martin and Claire Foy

Frustratingly, much of the subtlety and the poignant intensity of the character’s intertwining relationships is lost on screen as the programme makers attempt to squash the whole story within one hour and thirty minutes, and as a result it is difficult to really care about their journey back in time.

In saying this, there are absolutely glimpses of greatness. It is beautifully shot and well-directed — the opening moments of Anna Maxwell Martin brooding around the streets of war-torn London in a man’s suit are gorgeous. The scriptwriters are true to Waters’ wonderfully rich dialogue, albeit there isn’t enough time for the adaptation to really plunge thickly into her wondrous weaving of words.

The casting is tremendous. In particular Maxwell Martin carries off the heartbroken charisma of Kay, the wartime ambulance driver effortlessly, but again she is let down by the lack of time available to really explore the complexities of what Kay has truly lost in the war beyond her girlfriend.

Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of Viv, whose affair with a married soldier leads her to a botched, illegal abortion is also convincing and perhaps suffers least from the time constraints, while Harry Treadaway’s intense, still portrayal of Duncan as he struggles to cope with life after prison would stir even the most half-hearted viewer.

Jodie Whittaker

Photo by John Rogers

The love triangle between Kay, Helen (Claire Foy) and Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones) is reduced to a few measly scenes that leave the viewer struggling to understand why any of the women would be remotely interested in the other. However, we do get a lovely scene of Helen and Julia getting frisky in the bath. In this adaptation, Julia’s charm is pretty much non-existent, Helen’s sweet naivety is simply needy and their subsequent betrayal of Kay seems all too easy.

Claire Foy
Photo by Susie Allnutt

All of The Night Watch’s problems would have been solved with more time. The book is clearly split into three parts and the TV adaptation should have followed suit. To condense the whole book into one programme was a dreadful waste and a little cheap of the BBC.

When we interviewed Waters a few months ago and asked how she feels about her stories and characters being brought to life, altered and adapted, she said: “You have to let it go because it’s not your book anymore. My book is there, that’s the thing. It doesn’t change the book, it’s just this extra thing that is closely related to mine, but it’s someone else’s project.”

So we’ll take Sarah’s advice and let it go, but this will be the first Waters adaptation that we do not buy. Or watch every night. Or act out scenes together. Too much information? Quite possibly.

“Great LezBritain” authors Sarah, a Londoner, and Lee, a Glaswegian, met in a gay discotheque one bleak mid winter, eight years ago and have been shacked up together ever since. When not watching Tipping The Velvet, they find time to write, run a PR company, DJ at their own club nights and love a bit of jam on toast. Follow them on Twitter at greatlezbritain.

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