Looking Back At THE FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES OF MOLL FLANDERS (1996) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s getting literary. It never used to be like this…
Daniel Defoe is a writer with a relatively forgiving nature towards his characters. Beyond any shadow of doubt, he puts them through all manners of hell, as arguably any adventure writer must, but his own life shaped his stories with grit, with realism, and with above all a sense of keeping on at a thing, because the alternative is unthinkable.

His Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is an utter catastrophe of a man long before he sets foot on the ship that takes him to his wreck, but Defoe lets us warm to him in spite of his failures, his irresponsibility, his utter foolhardiness – and even, though from the 21st century, to a significantly lesser extent, to his monstrously racist behaviour.

Defoe’s Moll Flanders, to an equal extent, is powered through the privileges and privations of her life – her fortunes and misfortunes, even - by a fundamental sense of self, and what that self is destined to be, irrespective of the realities of her life and her particular circumstances at any given time.

Like other disreputable women of fiction in the centuries to follow (paging Becky Sharp!), Moll Flanders does whatever she likes when she can, and whatever she must when it leads her to an advantage.

She’s colourful, naturally talented, and an object lesson in the idea that talent and self-possession can push you either to the top of a capitalist society, if practiced in respectable circles, or to the bottom of such a society, if practiced in worse company.

In essence, the story arc is similar to that of Defoe’s earlier novel, Colonel Jack – rises and falls on the way to an ultimate redemption for a challenging, self-powered character.

But in Moll Flanders, Defoe took the unorthodox step of writing a first-person account of a woman on her own. One who has to shift for herself in a potentially cruel, ruthlessly mercantile world, with its in-built patriarchal judgments on what constituted a good woman and a bad.

As with Colonel Jack, and as with Crusoe, the writing is such that while we know that some of what she does is strictly-speaking “bad,” she remains our heroine character, and we continue, all the way through, to wish her well and hope she will achieve the fortune and respectability she craves.

And for most people, (and with apologies to Robin Wright) there’s only one woman in the world who embodies her – and that’s Alex Kingston, in Andrew Davies’ 1996 four-part TV telling of the story.

Now, let’s be clear here. Andrew Davies’ Moll Flanders is not… exactly… Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, any more than his Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are exactly Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. But what Andrew Davies brings to any adaptation is a laser focus on translating the work into something that is instantly understandable by its intended audience.

In his original UK interpretation of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards novel, Davies turned what was a really dry story of parliamentary procedure into a faux-Shakespearean masterpiece by having the lead character, Francis Urquhart, become a kind of Macbeth figure, breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, to bring us in on his soliloquies and rope us in as conspirators in whatever wickedness he planned, so that we became complicit in his villainy.

In Davies’ Pride and Prejudice, he took Austen’s interesting but quite distant prose and allowed what was essentially the ultimate early 19th century rom-com to shine in a way that had (let’s be honest here) mostly women in 1995 clutching it to their hearts. So much so that in 1996, while both a Hollywood movie version of Moll Flanders and Davies’ own TV version hit screens, Helen Fielding used Davies’ Pride and Prejudice as a major plot thread in the novel of Bridget Jones’ Diary. Which, when it became a film in 2001, Davies also helped adapt for the screen.

For Moll Flanders, Davies went back to his House of Cards strategy, using both voiceovers and fourth wall-breaking from the central character to punch us straight into Moll’s world and the various adventures that turn it upside-down and right-side up. And as with House of Cards’ “You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” Davies gave Moll Flanders a line that she could repeat to camera, demanding of those who came with her on her journey, “Well… what would you do?”

Now, it’s important to add of course that all of Andrew Davies’ best adaptations have come with superb casts, many of them including career-making or career-capping performances - Colin Firth, Ian Richardson, etc.

The same is sparklingly true of Moll Flanders. While it’s in no sense the case that Moll Flanders was Alex Kingston’s first major role on British TV, it was a role to which she dedicated a mindblowing performance, that still stands up over a quarter of a century later, and after which, everybody in Britain knew her name.

Every time Kingston is on screen – and obviously, she’s on screen most of the time across the course of over three and a half hours – you can’t take your eyes off her, whether she’s Moll on the upside, striving to be good and godly, or Moll on the downside, resorting to cons, thievery, cutpursing and prostitution.

The combination of Defoe’s original character, the dynamism and pacing added by Davies, and a jewel-like performance by an Alex Kingston yet to stun the world on ER, or bring in the geeks with her role as River Song in Doctor Who, delivers a literary adaptation as unlike most translations of historic literature as you can possibly imagine.

Some of that is down to the combination of Defoe and Davies, creating the arc of Moll’s life not on a straightforward up and down trajectory but a cyclic one, a ‘great wheel,’ that turns through several revolutions in Moll’s life, bringing her from a birth in the filth of Newgate Prison (where Defoe himself served time as a prisoner in his relative youth), to Colchester, London, Lancashire, Virginia, London again, and eventually, back to Newgate. That ‘great wheel’ approach also keeps you constantly on your toes, wondering when the next development will come.

It'll come pretty soon, because Davies and director David Attwood keep things moving both in terms of the scenery and settings and in terms of the emotional tone of Moll’s life at any point.

We won’t give you a full run-down of the action in Moll Flanders, because finding out what happens next is part of the fun. But it’s certainly true that she often gains uplifts when she least expects them, and that calamities fall on her out of a seemingly clear blue sky.

It’s also worth noting that the stellar cast of Moll Flanders does not in any sense begin and end with Kingston, although she is of course our central beacon, leading us through the action. If we say “A young Daniel Craig as a dandy highwayman,” that will make several people prick up their ears.

A young Nicola Walker as Moll’s “Artful Dodger” and lesbian love interest, Lucy “I swear we’re not making this up” Diver – any takers? (And yes, technically, that’s Davies overwriting Defoe with a sensibility to their relationship that the original author didn’t think would fly with his readers if he painted it explicitly).

Maureen O’Brien and Diana Rigg star as Moll’s mother figures at various stages of her life - not to mention Alex’s sister Nicola playing Moll’s mother at her birth(!). Ronald Fraser plays a crucial Justice of the Peace. Geoffrey Beevers as a judge. Colin Buchanan steals some early scenes as one of Moll’s brothers and her first lover (oh yeah, you’re really going to want to strap in to the forbidden raunchometer for this one). Tom Ward is here as a dashing seafarer with a somewhat unfortunate slave problem. Caroline Harker gives a sharpness to one of Moll’s semi-sisters. James Fleet is here too, as one of Moll’s less fortunate and short-lived husbands.

And so on, and so on.

When it comes to outstanding actors in both major and minor roles, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders is more like Jack Pullman’s adaptation of I, Claudius from the works of Robert Graves than it is like any other contemporary literary translation. Even Pride and Prejudice doesn’t carry this much impeccable acting talent all the way through.

There’s no doubt that when you sit a while and think about it, the events of Moll Flanders don’t paint an entirely favourable picture of our heroine. Lover to one brother, wife to another, wife to a draper with the express purpose of spending his inheritance, wife to a dull banker, wife to a highwayman, wife to an appallingly unsuitable plantation owner, then con artist, cutpurse and even, on one particularly dark occasion, very nearly child-murderer.

But all of this, Davies and Kingston’s version tells us, is the mark of a consistent character, buffeted by circumstance, though often too keen to justify her actions, rather than take responsibility for them. Moll Flanders learns early that those who make their own luck are the people who succeed in life. She realises that in her society, her body is a sellable asset – either directly or within the more discreet chicanery of the marriage market. And she sells it – sometimes for her own purposes, sometime with genuine love – to advance her ultimate cause.

She has a trajectory marked out for herself – she wants to be a gentlewoman – and she makes the moves she feels she has to make. Throughout the story, she describes herself to us as a merchant adventurer, and she adventures from marriage to marriage, eventually into unfortunate company and legal danger, just like her mother before her.

But it’s conspicuous that she describes Daniel Craig’s highwayman, Jemmie, as the love of her life, and Nicola Walker’s Lucy Diver as her best and truest friend in the world – both of whom are in that sub-group of ‘unfortunate company.’

Is there a moral message in Moll Flanders? Yes, but it’s quite subtle. We’ve said that throughout the piece, Moll breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience “Well, what would you do?” as she careers from husband to husband, leaving several children behind at almost every stop.

What becomes moralistic and interesting is that when Moll herself feels she’s crossed a line in the pursuit of her ultimate goals, she becomes defensive with the camera, sometimes explaining herself, sometimes demanding that we not look at her the way we are, and on one occasion even shoving her hand into the camera, like a disgraced politician blocking the shots of the paparazzi.

While only rarely allowing her conscience to get in her way – and that, probably, for the best - this developing response to the observation of we, her confidantes, shows that Moll Flanders is never at any point a psychopath. She is exactly what Defoe wrote her to be – a woman, given nothing by her birth, having to make her own way through a life that has at least as many ups as it has downs, and striving to a social attainment that speaks to her of a final ability to be calm and true, not only to herself but to those with whom she shares her life. And the ultimate moral is one spoken by Moll herself at the end of the fourth episode: “If God has seen fit to smile on me, then who are you to judge me.” We are all on the great wheel, she says. Any one of us can see both triumph and disaster while the wheel turns and we cling to it.

There are many things you can do with three and a half hours of your life. The three and a half you spend binge-watching The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders will never be counted among the time you’ve wasted. It’s rich, it’s colourful, it’s pretty darned bawdy, and it’s a masterstroke of literary translation that serves everyone who stars in it – and everyone who watches it – well, even two and a half decades on.

Watch The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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