War & Peace Is Actually Just an Upmarket Downton Abbey

Andrew Davies’s superb adaptation for BBC1 understands this and was a blessing after the special time-travel edition of what everyone is now rightly calling Shitlock.

Gosh what a breath of fresh air was Andrew Davies’s War & Peace adaptation (BBC1, Sundays) after all the stale rubbish that was on over Christmas. There were times when the yuletide TV tedium got so bad that I considered preparing us all a Jonestown-style punchbowl. That way, we would never have had to endure Walliams and Friend nor the special time-travel edition of what everyone is now rightly calling Shitlock.

Sherlock has a terminal case of Doctor Who disease. That is, it has become so knowing, so self-referential, so — ugh! — meta that it no longer feels under any obligation to put in the hard yards needed to surprise and delight anyone who isn’t already a committed fanboi. If you’ve ever been to a Morrissey gig, you will recognise the problem: you go hoping for a couple of at least half-recognisable Smiths numbers and maybe something from Vauxhall and I, but he just can’t be arsed because he’s ‘Morrissey’.

In the same way, star screenwriters Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss no longer even pretend to be capturing the spirit of Conan Doyle’s ingenious storylines. Instead, they prefer to noodle about with wanky meditations on the torturedness of Holmes’s druggie psyche, the sublimated homoeroticism of his relationship with the ineffably dull Watson and the curious absence of the female perspective. It’s like doing a bad English course at one of those terrible ‘unis’ where Anglo-Saxon isn’t part of the syllabus.

Andrew Davies, on the other hand — now he’s the real deal. He pretends he’s a saucy vulgarian, forever spicing up dusty old classic texts to make them feel more relevant and now (Mr Darcy with his wet shirt clinging to his manly torso, etc.). But that’s just for the pre-publicity. Davies’s real dark secret is that he’s a reverential scholar in dirty old man’s clothing. Sure, for his latest ‘sexed up’ adaptation, he may have slipped in a cheeky incest scene between the Kuragin siblings. It wasn’t particularly obtrusive, though, and nor was it especially dishonest to the relationship they have in the original. You can’t imagine Tolstoy turning in his grave at it in the same way Conan Doyle most definitely is over the finale of this year’s Shitlock episode where Holmes reveals himself to be a massive fan of the Votes for Women campaign.

War & Peace has a terrible rep among readers as the literary equivalent of assaulting Everest without oxygen. Actually, though, as this hugely enjoyable, instantly accessible and gorgeous-to-look-at adaptation rightly understands, it’s actually just an upmarket Downton Abbey with more palatial houses, weirder characters and rather less interest in what happens below stairs.

Read the rest at the Spectator.