Vanity Fair is in full swing as Becky Sharp and her friends and foes whirl around on a fairground carousel, laughing and screaming merrily. But who is the wry-looking ringmaster in the top hat directing all the action with a click of his fingers?
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Vanity Fair,” declares the author William Makepeace Thackeray, played with a knowing smile by Michael Palin. “A world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”
The Monty Python actor appears in every single episode of ITV’s ambitious new adaptation as the novelist himself. But while his role is tremendously important, it was also filmed extremely efficiently.
“That was my one night on the film,” he revealed at a Bafta screening in London. “Four o’clock in the afternoon that day I wasn’t in Vanity Fair, and four o’clock in the morning I was in seven episodes.”
And not only did the producers have to get all of Palin’s 19th century carousel scenes filmed in one go, but they also had to contend with 21st century audio pollution.
“We were right on the flight path,” Palin explained. “For some reason things seem to always be shot under a flight path, and there were planes going over very very low most of the time – you had to act very swiftly in the thirty seconds.”
Not that it was an ordeal. Palin, who actually selected Vanity Fair as his Desert Island Discs book in 1979, was delighted to step into Thackeray’s shoes and watch Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke), Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman) and George Osborne (Charlie Rowe) ride their horses round and round into the early hours of the morning.
“That was a rather magical evening because the carousel is just one of those iconic props,” he said.
“It’s just a marvellous-looking thing itself, and the way it’s used and the way Becky’s on it, screaming and shouting, it does seem to be a little bit of magic, a fantasy, before you get into the story itself. And I think it kind of gave you the flavour and the feeling of how the story should be approached.”
Vanity Fair has been adapted by the screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, who came up with this unusual concept for how to bring the author’s role in the story from page to screen.
“Right from the very beginning I wanted to do it that way,” she explained. “For exactly the same reasons that Michael mentioned, about Thackeray’s position in his own story. He’s like an omniscient god, he’s created these people, and I always have this impression of him sitting up in heaven looking down at them indulgently, going, oh aren’t they silly.”
While the phrase “Vanity Fair” comes from a passage in The Pilgrim’s Progress, it has come to mean something a little different to modern audiences – and so Hughes hit up on the idea of an actual, literal fairground. But it all came down to casting.
“The only question was, who’s going to play Thackeray? If we didn’t get anyone who could just walk in out of the screen and into the lives of everybody, we would have dropped it,” she said, turning to Palin: “So you saved the carousel!”