Tom Jones creator: "Every romantic comedy has a happy ending"
ITVx's ambitious new drama will delight fans of the original novel.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
When writer Gwyneth Hughes picked up the 700-page door-stopping tome of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones with a view to adapting it for television, she didn’t hold out much hope. It was published in 1749, so she worried it wouldn’t translate for a modern audience.
However, she was soon gripped and realised Fielding’s classic novel is a love story that follows a now all-too-familiar pattern: boy meets girl, faces many different obstacles, but hopes to end up… well, we know the rest.
“Tom Jones lays out the knitting pattern for the [present-day] romantic comedy,” says Hughes. “It’s exactly the same format and that was pretty much invented by Fielding. Every romantic comedy has a happy ending and – spoiler alert – our show has the one you’d expect. It’s this innocent journey where people don’t swipe right. Their eyes meet across a crowded stable yard the old-fashioned way.”
The result is a glossy, timeless romp spread across four hours on ITVX, blessed with a picture-postcard unspoilt countryside backdrop and a cast including Shirley Henderson and Hannah Waddingham. At its heart is our titular hero (played by Solly McLeod), a country boy born out of wedlock and taken in by benevolent widower Squire Allworthy (James Fleet).
As he grows up, the good-looking Tom finds women start throwing themselves at him and, as he hasn’t the heart to turn them down, he ends up in all sorts of trouble.
When Sophia Western arrives in the village, the pair fall in love, but Tom is considered too lowly to marry her, with both families united against the match. “Classic books like this are enormously long, but I’ve read it so you don’t have to!” says Hughes. “Mine is a potted version, but I wanted to remain true to what the writer was trying to say.”
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However, one big change was to make Sophia (who’s played by Sophie Wilde) a woman of colour. “I was thrilled at the opportunity to write a Black character,” Hughes explains. “We decided to have her move from the Caribbean to England to be with her paternal family.
"It really did happen to lots of young people: their mother was a slave and their father some Englishman who went out there. Just as Tom doesn’t know who his father is, Sophia never met her mother, which is something they have in common.”
Other than Sophia’s background, Hughes changed surprisingly little from the original novel. “I was worried the book would be sexist,” she says, “but it’s not in the least bit. Sophia is the most lively and adventurous girl, and there’s a fantastic villain in Lady Bellaston, played by Hannah Waddingham.
“They might be wearing corsets but there are no pink fluffy bits. These are 18th century people who are funny and interesting and behave like idiots sometimes, just as we do.”
Sophie Wilde on playing Sophia Western
How did you feel about being offered the role?
"I’ve wanted to be in a period drama since, aged five, I saw Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. So I was overjoyed."
As a child, did playing a Black character in a period drama seem an impossible dream?
"100 per cent. My dream was to play Jane Bennet [in Pride and Prejudice] and I thought, 'That won’t happen.' So to have this representation on screen is a beautiful and exciting thing."
How did you prepare?
"There was a lot of piano playing and learning etiquette, which was so much fun. But the horse riding was terrifying!"
You’re Australian — did you work with a dialect coach?
"I did, but I’d just done two British projects, so I was already deep in."
What is Sophia like?
"She’s fiery, sweet, very courageous and willing to sacrifice a lot to pursue her desires."
How does she feel about Tom?
"She feels they are souls who both operate slightly outside society. It’s the first time she can express parts of herself she’s grappling with. Tom can be naive and led astray, but she believes he’s compassionate."
Sophia is very sexy. What was that like to play?
"Sometimes it was fun to be unashamedly sexy. Other times, it felt so awkward!"
Why do you love period drama?
"It’s so poetic and romantic and uncomplicated. There’s a purity in the way they talk about true love."
Solly McLeod on playing Tom Jones
How did you feel to be offered the part?
"I thought they meant the singer Tom Jones so I was like, 'I don’t have a Welsh accent, I can’t sing!' When I researched the book and 1963 film I realised what a big deal it was."
Did you read the book?
"I gave up after 10 pages. It’s beautifully written, but so dense."
What’s Tom like?
"He’s a foundling who’s had this very wealthy upbringing, but doesn’t feel he fits into either of those worlds. He wants to be a gentleman so he never refuses a lady…"
But is he a good guy?
"Yes, he’s not dishonest. When he says 'I love you' he means it. But then you meet someone else and think, 'Well, I love this one, so what was that?' He’s trying to do the right thing."
This project was the fourth you filmed in a row, including HBO’s House of the Dragon. Was it intense?
"I came home a shell. I don’t think I dealt with the workload in the most healthy way; it took a toll on me physically and mentally. But I know what to do now. The [Tom Jones] cast gave me great advice about not letting work overtake your life."
Did you enjoy filming in and around Belfast?
"Yes, the locations were beautiful. Although filming in open-chested shirts or doing sex scenes meant we were freezing, and we often weren’t allowed inside the grand houses. So you’d be under a tent in the rain trying to warm up with a coffee."
Were you starstruck by anyone?