Friday 23 February 2018

Review: JK Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' on BBC 1 - 'a good cast wasted on complete tosh'

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy

Pat Stacey

Depending on your level of cynicism, JK Rowling is either a force for good whose Harry Potter books encouraged a generation of youngsters, and especially boys, to get into the reading habit or, like EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), an ultimately destructive presence whose massive, hype-driven sales have made life difficult for less well-known, but possibly – definitely in the case of James – more talented authors to catch a break.

Look at Rowling’s 2013 detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Two months after publication it had sold a total of 7,500 print, ebook and audiobook copies. But once the news that Rowling was behind it leaked, it surged from 4,709th place on Amazon’s sales charts to the number one slot in a matter of days.

That’s the power, more fearsome than any-thing Lord Voldemort could muster, of the JK Rowling brand name: to cast a spell over people and make them behave like sheep.

You have to wonder if The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first post-Potter novel for adults, released in 2012, would have seen the light of publication had it been written by an unknown first-time author. Judging from the tepid reviews at the time, probably not.

I haven’t read the book, which is reportedly a clunky potboiler brimming with hypocrisy, class snobbery, racism, unhappy marriages, domestic violence, sexual frustration, sexual infidelity, drug-taking, rape and possibly incest, all of it unfolding in the picturesque English village of Pagford.

I’m even less inclined to do so after sitting through the turgid first episode of the three-part BBC/HBO adaptation, which left my own particular pot resolutely unboiled.

The vacancy of the title arises when a member of the Pagford parish council suddenly drops dead from an aneurysm. This is Barry Fairbrother, played by the ubiquitous Rory Kinnear, a solicitor and all-ground nice guy (the clue is in his surname) who’s determined to protect the beaten-down residents of The Fields, a working-class housing estate that borders the village, from fellow council members who would happily enforce a policy of Middle England apartheid.

Chiefly, these are shopkeeper Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon doing his Michael Gambon Thing) and his wittering wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie, overracting wildly).

“Those junkies and plebs streaming through our village,” rages Howard. “We must raise the drawbridge and lower the portcullis!”

Generations earlier, local toff Lord Phineas Sweetlove (a very Potterish name, that) bequeathed Sweetlove House to the village “for the enjoyment and betterment of the people of The Fields”. These days, it’s used as a foodbank and methadone clinic. The Morrisons, sucking up to the Lord’s obnoxious descendants, want to see it turned into a luxury spa to attract the “right sort” of people.

With Barry out of the way, Howard sees the opportunity to shoehorn his spineless son into the vacancy. But before the dead man is even cold, someone calling themselves “the ghost of Barry Fairbrother” takes to the internet, promising to expose the residents’ darkest secrets.

Rowling apparently based the book on her own unhappy teenage experience of living in a narrow-minded village. But could the residents, middle or working-class, really have been as one-dimensional as the gallery of heavy-handed stereotypes on display here?

The most curious thing about the series is the language. F-words are flung around with giddy abandon, as though this were proof that we’re watching drama for adults. It has the opposite effect of making it seem infantile.

A good cast wasted on complete tosh.

The Casual Vacancy Sunday BBC 1 9pm

Herald

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