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“War and Peace” (1869) by Leo Tolstoy.

Adapted for the BBC by Andrew Davies.

There is very rarely an ambiguous response to this seminal work which has constantly been rated one of the greatest literary works in history. And so it was with the latest BBC production. On the face of it things didn’t seem very promising with a populist cast and writer in Andrew Davies who is known for distinctly middlebrow fare and ITV drama staples such as Mr. Selfridge and South Riding. How would he cope with Tolstoy’s masterpiece?


The series was panned virtually before it started with the Daily Mail (and Private Eye’s Remote Controller) going down the “Phwoar and Peace” route based on not very much at all. This adaptation was to Denis Potter what Bambi is the the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The book is very long and it is easy to be put off by the first 100 or so pages which are a detailed description of social rules amongst the elite of St. Petersburg. Our guide through this rather dry section is Anna Pavlovna, played by Gillian Anderson whose face is frozen into a permanent state of bemusement by over zealous use of botox (allegedly). This is quite disconcerting; a veritable source of wonderment and thus, as with the X Files reboot, distracting from the performance. But in the book the rest of the narrative is a surprisingly straightforward read. We are party to the experiences of three main families as they navigate their way through major upheaval in their native Russia caused in no small part by the French Revolution and the expansionist policies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Andrew Davies deserves great credit for remaining true to the spirit of the book which is that even the most heroic have character flaws. Paul Dano brought a previously unseen sensitivity to the character of Pierre Bezukhov who appears far more priggish in Tolstoy’s prose and Jim Broadbent’s Count Bolkonsky was wonderfully acerbic and explosive. The ending is different to Tolstoy’s by being understated in comparison with the book, but I felt this worked in the context of Davies narrative and the stunning cinematography.

The journey that Pierre and his contemporary Prince Andrei undertake is fashioned by their opulent surrounding but moulded by their experiences of the brutality of war. Every generation, it seems is scarred by armed conflict but as technology improves it is more and more the preserve of the working class to be literally on the front line be it as the recipients of long range cruise missiles, high level air strikes or to be the ones clearing cities such as Fallujah on behalf of the top brass sitting in control rooms. In World War One over 200 British Generals died in action and as a proportion of casualties the Officer class was ahead 17%/ 12% to the general population. Prime Minister Asquith lost a son as did Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law. Can you imagine such a thing these days?  Now more than then is the phrase, “Lions Led by Donkey” applicable as the class divide becomes a chasm on every level and every facet of life.

I would recommend War and Peace as a great read with the free version on iRead providing a translation where each character is referred by a single name (otherwise you need a crib sheet) and the occasional pieces of French or German phrases are pre translated.  My Dad once advised me that you should never admit to reading War and Peace as people would judge you as a smart arse. It seems being educated has always been something to hide which I think is a shame. “You’re posh aren’t you? No. Just educated. There’s a difference”. DCI Karl Roebuck in “The Tunnel”. A good retort but the fact that being bookish still provokes such a response is depressing.



About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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