A suitable writer for A Suitable Boy?

Tanya Maniktala is Lata the central character

The new TV drama serial A Suitable Boy, based on the novel by Vikram Seth begins on Sunday 26 July on BBC1. The novel was widely praised when it was published in 1993 and the serial is directed by Mira Nair whose track record as a diaspora director of both South Asian and British/American films is equally well-respected. Promotion of the serial as the first major production by the BBC to feature an all non-white cast suggests a real sense of meeting an audience demand for more stories by and about people of colour, preferably also made by people of colour. Why then has the Radio Times published a comment piece by Tufayel Ahmed questioning the production’s credentials? The answer is simply that Andrew Davies was commissioned to adapt the novel. Davies is the veteran adapter who gained a reputation (which he tended to promote himself) as a very successful adapter of literary classics who could ‘sex up’ earlier fictions for a contemporary popular TV audience. Tufayel Ahmed admits that he hasn’t seen the serial and he doesn’t mention the Davies reputation for sexing up stories. He is concerned only that Davies is not a person of colour and specifically not from a South Asian background. Because of this he feels that this revelation “takes a little bit of sheen off this groundbreaking project”.

I’m not going to argue against the force of what Tufayel Ahmed says. He goes on to make several good points about the growing challenge to broadcasters to employ more writers from diverse backgrounds and I urge you to read the piece. I’m also not necessarily a fan of Andrew Davies, though I respect his undoubted skills. What interests me are a number of questions about adaptation and television drama more generally. The first point is that this will be a drama serial, not a ‘series’. The serial format is very familiar, especially on UK TV, used for adapting the classic ‘long-form narrative’, the 19th century novel. It is also now used extensively for US TV long-form narratives (but these tend to be much longer than the six episodes of A Suitable Boy which would be termed a ‘mini-series‘ in the US). But because it is an adaptation of a very long novel (over 1400 pages for the paperback), the question of compression comes to the fore, as well as the selection of suitable dividing points and ‘cliffhangers’. The commission will be a big gamble for the BBC, costing at least £20 million (which means over £3 million per episode, a figure greater than the current budget mean figure for UK features). Because the funding is coming solely from the BBC, this is a very risky venture and arguably dependent on overseas sales. The reaction of Indian-based YouTubers suggests that it has probably got an Indian sale already. The BBC is in a financial crisis making the situation even more important that the project is successful. The BBC is also promoting the serial as a ‘period drama production’ (it begins in 1951) which industry wisdom often suggests is a turn-off for younger viewers.

I haven’t read the novel and I haven’t yet found information about how long each episode will be, but compressing the narrative into 6 x 1 hour episodes as a minimum will be very difficult and even at 6 x 90 minutes (or 540 minutes) will be tough. The trick will be how to set up the story in Episode 1 with a hook that will retain enough viewers for Episode 2. The most experienced person able to do this may well be Andrew Davies. There may be many others but producers don’t like uncertainty (they are generally ‘risk averse’ as the industry jargon has it) and that’s possibly why they went with Davies. I’ve also seen reports that Vikram Seth requested Davies as adapter. Mira Nair has a long and distinguished list of credits. I’ve seen all bar one of her features and I’m a big admirer but a serial of this magnitude is something new for her. It doesn’t help that her previous attempt at filming a long novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (US-UK-India 2004), did not do well at the box office, although I enjoyed it. More pressure on Ms Nair means less leeway on the adapter.

There are three creative ‘writers’ involved in this production. Vikram Seth is Executive Producer as well as the author of the novel and Mira Nair is tasked with presenting the story on screen. The role of the adapter is not to write something new but to shape what exists already, to compress and possibly to restructure to fit the format. The director has to solve the problems the script will inevitably raise and the producer Aradhana Seth (the author’s sister, a distinguished artist and filmmaker) has to ensure that what eventually arrives on screen meets the original production aims. Does Davies’ lack of South Asian heritage threaten this creative team? Scanning the crew list for a shoot solely based in India, there are only a small number of Europeans/Americans such as cinematographer Declan Quinn involved. As a diaspora director working out of the US, Mira Nair has often used a mix of Indian and non-Indian personnel on her films made in India.

My final observation is just to suggest that part of the issue discussed here is the difference between film and TV, especially in the UK. This simply means that, in the UK, TV is seen as a writer’s medium and film is generally discussed as a director’s medium. This possibly comes from the UK’s strong literary/theatre tradition, embedded to some extent in the education system and the tendency for film culture to have been associated with ‘low culture’. The low status of foreign language cinema or cinema steeped in other cultures means that in the UK, ‘Mira Nair’ might not mean as much to non-diaspora audiences as ‘Sally Wainwright‘ or Jed Mercurio as TV writers, nor indeed as ‘Andrew Davies’ as adapter. It is true that many of the so-called ‘Quality TV’ long-term narratives made for cable and streaming in the US have attracted major directors such as Martin Scorsese, but that hasn’t happened to the same extent in the UK.

In conclusion, I want to support Tufayel Ahmed’s call for more writing commissions for people of colour from British broadcasters. However, the best way to do this is to develop a wide range of new writers who can gain experience on a diverse range of productions. These mega projects like A Suitable Boy are usually going to happen through co-productions and their production practices and funding packages are likely to resemble those of the film industry. But that’s another story. One last point, there is a long established writer of South Asian background who has many credits and a high profile – Hanif Kureshi. But would he be a suitable adapter?

I’m looking forward to watching A Suitable Boy. Here’s the BBC trailer:

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