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April 6th, 2016

Thomas the Transsexual Tank Engine

Why do television, film and theatrical producers so often choose to muck about with  masterpieces?  All too often the answer is: Political Correctness.   They honestly believe they can improve a work  by removing elements they find personally objectionable.

One of the greatest and most poignant television adaptations ever made was of  Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It followed the plot meticulously, with a commentary in Waugh’s own words narrated by Jeremy Irons, who plays the part of Charles Ryder. The whole point of Brideshead is that it is a thoroughly, but subtly, Catholic novel, and this was brought out brilliantly in the television production.

Some years ago there was a crass cinema adaptation by Jeremy Brock, who described his aims  in a  Daily Telegraph article. The villain, according to Brock, was  “man-made theology”; the villainess, “the über-Catholic and family matriarch, Lady Marchmain”, a “privileged peacock”  played by Emma Thompson. The whole point about Lady M. is that she is a control freak, and would be no matter what her religion or social class. The dramatic deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain, who returns to the faith in the last moments of his life, is dismissed with a sneer.

As for Charles Ryder, he was transmogrified into “a young man on a thoroughly modern journey of self-discovery that embraces tolerance of the spiritual with a more contemporary, individualistic search for meaning in this life”. Waugh would go purple with fury at this absurd  distortion of his finest novel. He would certainly dismiss Mr Brock as “a cad”.

To give you a real flavour of Evelyn Waugh’s prose—and his faith—here is the final passage of the book, when Charles visits the chapel of the old house, now taken over as an army headquarters:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.
‘You’re looking unusually cheerful today,’ said the second-in-command.

Now another wrecking ball is to be taken to Brideshead—this time in a stage adaptation. One of the main characters is Ryder’s friend  Sebastian Flyte, who gradually  and tragically succumbs to alcoholism. In the TV production  Flyte was played with great sensitivity by Anthony Andrews, perfect as a rather inadequate but eminently likeable young English aristocrat. Now director  Damien Cruden has decided to give the part to “an olive-skinned  41-year-old of Irish-Greek-Rwandan descent”. For all I know the guy may be a brilliant actor—but Sebastian Flyte he could never be..

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that a “person of colour” should never, ever, play a Caucasian. In Much Ado About Nothing Denzel Washington made a good fist of playing Don Pedro of Aragon. But it has to be believable. A black Henry V was absurd, as would be a white Cetshwayo in a film about the Zulu War. When a black soprano sang the part of a Wagner heroine in Bayreuth she received a string of standing ovations (although I rather suspect the German audience may have felt obliged to prove their liberal credentials).

The latest piece of nonsense is the politically correct updating of Thomas the Tank Engine.  In the interests of diversity, Thomas is now to have  14 new international locomotive pals. Among them will be Yong Bao, Carlos and Ashima, from China, Mexico and India respectively.  Sodor, where Thomas operates, is in fact the Isle of Man. Maybe the Fat Controller (soon, no doubt, to be the Obese Controller) will gradually become black, as happened to one of the Teletubbies.

I wonder what  the Rev. Wilfred Vere Awdry,  creator of Thomas, makes of it. One on-line comment I came across sums it up: “How long before we get a Thomas character that’s transsexual  and living with HIV?”

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