I realised my heart wasn’t in Cider with Rosie, the final adaptation in the BBC’s brief 20th-century classics mini-season, in the very first scene, as Laurie Lee’s family trundled up to their new home in the Cotswolds.
“Blimey,” I thought, “what a pretty house, it must be worth £1 million, maybe £1.25 million, Cotswolds property prices being what they are. I wonder if it comes with much land – do all of those sun-dappled meadows belong to it? Is there decent access because I doubt anyone would approach it in a cart any more. More like a four-by-four. I bet it’s hell to get to in winter. Where’s the nearest Waitrose? Probably Stroud…”
This wandering attention was entirely a defence mechanism because Cider with Rosie is, for me, one of those books. You know what I mean, a book you read as a teenager and that stays with you, occupying a little corner of your soul where the sun always shines, even when you grow up to become a miserable, careworn, rest-less adult.
It’s been adapted for television before, but I’ve never taken any notice. Though I have to take notice now, of course, as Cider with Rosie, Lee’s unforgettable, lyrical, elegiac (feel free to add your own adjectives) coming-of-age autobiography, occupies the prime Sunday-evening slot.
Lee’s book is the most glorious poetry, a shimmering, glowing love letter to his childhood and particularly to his mother (played by Samantha Morton), a formidable woman who held a big, tumultuous family together in the absence of her husband.
Timothy Spall narrates and, truly, these passages are the best bits because Lee’s unmistakeable voice, alone and unadorned, rings high, clear and true. I’d happily listen to Spall reading the whole thing, but that would be Radio 4, not BBC1. But when we get to the acting action, something is lost. This has nothing to do with the actors themselves or any aspect of the production, which is as lush and succulent as you’d expect while not neglecting the darkness in the book, which includes death and murder. It’s just… well, I’m not sure.
Maybe it’s because I cherish Cider with Rosie that bit too much that the magic bubble bursts when it’s inhabited by people other than those who have lived in my imagination for decades.
I could say the same about Midwinter of the Spirit (Wednesday 9pm ITV), an instalment from one of my favourite subtly supernatural crime fiction series, Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins books, about an exorcist vicar in rural Herefordshire.
The difference here is that I’ve long wanted to see Merrily on television, in much the same way that you want the best for a good friend (even a fictional one) and you’d love to see them succeed. But my relationship with Merrily in all of her books is different from my relationship with Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie. Maybe it’s not as intensely personal – I’ve met Merrily in lots of novels over the years and there’s still more to discover. And Anna Maxwell Martin fits my idea of a plucky female exorcist.
Laurie Lee I’ve “met” just once, so perhaps it was a more intimate experience, all the more memorable for being so much shorter. But I can’t be alone in this surely – do you have a treasured book that you never want television to touch? To start us off, I’ll throw in my. all-time favourite, Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Now, what about you?
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Cider with Rosie is on BBC1 tonight (Sunday 27th September) at 8.30pm