December 22, 2003
Festive TV: Back from the Dead
By Ian Wylie
MAYOR: Finally on the box
SOME wondered if ITV1's £4m adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge would ever see the light of day. Questions about its fate became a Hardy perennial. Made in 2000, the petrol crisis at that time threatened to halt filming. Crew members beat the shortage by collecting fuel in jerry cans. Originally due to be shown early the next year, the two-part film was then one of many dramas to fall victim to a squeeze on finances at ITV, which doesn't pay for productions until they are actually broadcast. Now - after three years on the shelf - this small screen version of Thomas Hardy's classic has finally been scheduled for 9pm this coming Sunday and Monday.
When Hardy wrote the novel in 1885, critics described the book as too improbable and shocking. Its mix of personal trauma, passion, death and hope was too potent, a century before the birth of the modern soap opera.
Belfast-born actor Ciaran Hinds, 50, stars as rural labourer Michael Henchard, who gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey) and child to a sailor for five guineas. Once sober, he takes a solemn vow not to touch alcohol for 21 years. He becomes rich, respected and eventually the Mayor of Casterbridge. Years later his wife returns, bringing with her the daughter Henchard is led to believe is his. "Henchard does genuinely repent and is shocked and horrifed by what he has done," says Ciaran. "The challenge for me was to make him a sympathetic character. You have to make people understand why he's like that or else you alienate them."
Ciaran starred as Captain Wentworth in BBC TV's adaptation of Persuasion and was Mr Rochester in ITV's Jane Eyre. "I get some lovely letters," he says. "One of my favourites was from a woman who said, `My eight-year-old daughter has watched Jane Eyre four times on video and insists on making us all watch it and talk about you. I wondered if you could send us a signed photograph and then, when she's 16, it's your problem.' It really made me laugh."
He was quite taken with Henchard's sideburns. "I got used to them and people were shocked when I turned up at the wrap party, the night after we'd finished filming, with them still intact."
Ciaran is based in Paris, where he lives with actress partner Helene Patarot and their daughter, Aoife - the Gaelic for Eve - aged 12. "Helene is French- Vietnamese and I'm very Irish, so there's a melting pot going on. She's experiencing a rich variety of culture."
His recent work includes roles in Calendar Girls, Tomb Raider, alongside Angelina Jolie, and the Cate Blanchett film, Veronica Guerin. He also plays co-owner of the Paris Opera House in a forthcoming big screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom Of The Opera. It's a far cry from Ciaran's early days, when he began his career performing traditional Irish dancing.
"People try and make me do it at parties, but I have stopped now. I tell them I'm too old. I really enjoyed it in my youth - I did it from the age of six to 18 and would travel round with a troupe that told Irish legends through dance and mime."
The Casterbridge shown on screen in the TV production is an amalgamation of several Dorset locations, where road signs, aerials and streetlights were removed. Tonnes of dirt was used to cover yellow lines and parking bays in the towns, with 800 supporting artists recruited for the drama. Even the cattle had to look authentic. Freisian cows weren't around at the time the novel was set, so a herd of Gloucester cows was brought in for the country scenes.
Filming took place during the wettest autumn since records began. Several scenes also required rain, which meant the period dresses worn by the female characters had to be washed daily. Many members of the cast also wore thermal vests under their costumes to keep warm.
Viewers in America have already seen the much delayed TV film. And their verdict? Worth waiting for.