“So what are you doing about sex just now?”
As a young gay, reading Alan Hollinghurst novels felt like the height of sophistication, and whether true or not, there was an air of exclusivity about those of us who knew him (at least in the circles I moved in). So his ‘breakthrough’ with winning the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty was a validation tinged with disappointment that I now had to share that something special. His journey into the mainstream was completed with the requisite television adaptation, but with Andrew Davies at the helm for BBC2, it did feel like the right hands were on the tiller.
Hollinghurst’s story centres on a five year period in the life of Nick Guest, a fresh-faced Oxford graduate who moves to London in the summer of 1983. His offer to house-sit for the family of a university friend leads into an odyssey of personal and sexual discovery as he becomes a full-on lodger, thrust into the world of Tory politicians and old money, around which he fits furtive encounters with men as he explores his sexuality in a world in where homosexuality is far from being widely accepted in public. Thus the two main strands overlap and complement each other: Nick is given a window into the privileged lives of the wealthy upper classes in the Thatcherite boom years and in which he is allowed to play his own supporting part, but in the shadow of the emerging AIDS crisis, he discovers just how barely tolerated gay life is and just how hypocritical this society can be.
It’s a gorgeously written book and I have to admit to a little trepidation when the adaptation was first announced but rather pleasingly, I found it to live up to all my expectations. This is, in no small part, due to the faithfulness with which Davies has put together his version which cleaves extremely closely to the original. The harmony of vision which results is frequently glorious and expertly realised by director Saul Dibb. The focus remains rightly on character and story and so where less talented hands might have amped up the 80s feel or the AIDS scares, they are kept as the backdrops to the actual stories.
And as befits such a good adaptation, the casting is pretty much note-perfect throughout. A pre-Downton Dan Stevens (his hair is so much better here!) is brilliant as Nick, carrying off the debonair flair of someone who always manages to land on his feet, eventually. From his early heady hero-worship of Oliver Coleman’s Toby and his tight buns to negotiating the emotional volatility of the self-harming fag-hag-in-training Cat, Hayley Atwell in bruising form, he quickly makes himself indispensable to this family, charming Alice Krige’s mother and buddying up to Tim McInnerny’s MP father, itself an excellent portrayal of someone always desperately on the cusp of cabinet success.
Simultaneously, he is making his entrée into the gay world and there’s a great reminder of the pre-Gaydar/Grindr days, with guys hooking up through Want Ads, though the allure of a suggestively smoking waiter remains timeless. Don Gilet’s swagger is perfectly suited to the leonine Leo, Nick’s first real lover – Richard Lintern’s bitter ex also very well cast – and the callous beauty of Alex Wyndham’s closeted Wani is also well caught.
There’s excellent work all around though: Kika Markham’s Mrs T avoids caricature and is involved in one of the funniest scenes of the entire thing, Barbara Flynn and Kenneth Cranham are simply venomous as some vicious colleagues of Gerald, Nikki Amuka-Bird does gorgeous, compassionate work with the tiniest of material as Leo’s sister.So an excellent treat all round. A brilliant piece of television to watch in and of itself, but importantly for those more literary minded, it is a sensitive and well-tuned adaptation of the source materials. And if nothing else, it has to be admired for getting a casual shot of a prince albert onto BBC2!