Thursday, 9 May 2019

Ken Hutchison's devilish Heathcliff

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Ken Hutchison and Kay Adshead
Browsing through the pages of The Crystal Bucket by Clive James, last read a long time ago (published 1981), I came across his scathing newspaper review of the 1978 BBC mini-series version of Wuthering Heights. He described it as ‘the blithering pits’. Could it have been that bad? I found that the series was in five fifty-minute episodes directed by Peter Hammond, with a screenplay jointly written by David Snodin and Hugh Leonard and a musical score by Carl Davis. I bought the DVD version.

Ken Hutchison plays Heathcliff , Kay Adshead is Catherine Earnshaw. A number of child actors perform, with two assigned to the young Heathcliff. In a display of enthusiastic ‘fidelity’, there is an attempt to cover every single chapter of the novel, but the result inspired a mixture of admiration and ridicule in spite of the relative accuracy of its character representations, and some false accusations that the BBC had commissioned the series mainly because of the great success of Kate Bush’s famous song earlier in the same year. It took more than a few months to put together, of course.

The series is certainly not without merit. Clive James’s remarks possibly refer to the hyperbolically histrionic Kay Adshead as Catherine, to clumsy special effects, and a few inept attempts at melodrama, but Ken Hutchinson plays Heathcliff as brutal, cruel and devilish 'as Emily Brontë conceived of him', at least in the first few episodes. I was quite impressed. He is an interesting contrast to the pin-up stars who in other versions have been cast in the part, and there is hardly any obeisance to the myth of transcendental romance created by the Wiliam Wyler version of the novel in 1939, unless a couple of scenes on Penistone Crag filmed at Ponden Kirk count as parallels to Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon on a rock formation somewhere near Hollywood.

Carl Davis, who had won much praise for the music composed for The World at War (ITV, 1973 – 74), produced a superb score. True to the novel, and to C P Sanger's calculations, Edgar and Isabella first appear as children of about ten years old through the windows of the Grange, where they pull at a small dog, and Catherine and Heathcliff are shown riding ponies and playing by a beck on the moors, but some of their actions are awkward, for example when Heathcliff shrieks in a temper after Catherine, back from the Grange, calls him dirty. It's easy to go over the top when adapting Wuthering Heights, which is already over the top.

There is an interesting dramatic moment when Nelly discovers the generally neglected Hareton playing with his father’s gun and takes it away from him, and another soon afterwards when the drunken Hindley, as in the novel, holds him over the edge of a balcony, to be caught by Heathcliff. How many adaptations include that? When he is a little older, Hindley is seen beating Hareton viciously with a stick.

The stress on one of the novel’s strong themes -  of child neglect and abuse - is significant, because of the way most feature film adaptations gloss over or minimize it. The presumed psychological effects of the abuse are also included: Heathcliff hangs Isabella’s spaniel, to be rescued by Nelly, and Hareton is seen preparing to hang puppies soon afterwards in the same episode, half-grown puppies. The domestic violence inflicted upon poor Isabella by Heathcliff is shown briefly but shockingly as he swings a heavy chain at her.

The final two episodes covering the second generation are straggly, lacking dramatic impact, I guess partly because of the problem of constantly visualizing scenes of violence, the actors seeming to tire, and partly because the fixed desire for as much fidelity as can be crammed into four hours gives the impression that the narrative is being covered in full out of a kind of duty. Fidelity definitely has its limits.

It’s worth watching, though, if you have the patience, if only because Ken Hutchison very nearly gets there with his Heathcliff.