What do you do when you’re adapting a classic work of literature for TV – but the novel contains an uncomfortable degree of racism?
The answer, according to Vanity Fair screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, is to lay it bare for viewers to see.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel contains a handful of non-white characters, including the Sedleys’ black servant Sambo (“Sam” in the ITV version) and a mixed-race heiress called Miss Swartz, whose background is German-Jewish and Caribbean.
Each character is subject to racism both casual and deliberate; even their names are stereotypical.
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“You do want to give a true picture,” Hughes said, speaking at a Bafta screening in London. “A true picture of the time. To take it out would have felt to me very cowardly, and a bit rubbish, and not trusting the audience to be grown up about these things.”
Instead of removing the racism, Hughes has taken what is already in the novel and given it a twist.
One example is shown in episode one, with Mr and Mrs Sedley are discussing Becky Sharp’s attempted seduction of their India-loving son Jos Sedley.
The girl’s a white face at any rate,” he tells his wife. “Better than a dozen mahogany grandchildren.”
The dialogue comes almost entirely from Thackeray, with one crucial difference: in the novel it’s a private moment between Mr and Mrs Sedley, but in Hughes’ version, servant Sam (Richie Campbell) is in the room to hear. The perspective shifts.
“For us, the scene of Mr Sedley expressing his unpleasant thoughts plays out in front of Sam, the black servant,” Hughes explained. “So that we the audience are invited to see that horrible, rude, unpleasant, boorish behaviour from the point of view of the black guy who is unnoticed in the corner. It’s his scene.
“And for me, that made that scene really worth having in our show because it was really about how people like Mr Sedley thought in those days. And sadly today. But we are in the middle of a big old white-dominated classic drama, inviting the audience to step into the black guy’s shoes, and I am proud of that scene.”
Of course, this is not Sam’s only experience of racism, and Hughes has dialled up the awkwardness in another scene, where the so-called progressive Miss Matilda Crawley comes across Sam for the first time and is astonished.
In the novel, it’s a limited interaction when this Park Lane grandee deigns to visit Bloomsbury with Becky: “Miss Crawley was waiting in her carriage below, her people wondering at the locality in which they found themselves, and gazing upon honest Sambo, the black footman of Bloomsbury, as one of the queer natives of the place.”
But in the ITV drama, this scene extends to perhaps its logical conclusion, showing Miss Crawley (Frances de la Tour) actually entering the Sedley house for tea.
There, she remarks (in front of Sam), “My dear Mrs Sedley, I do wonder at your judgement in letting him loose on the porcelain.”
Sam says nothing, but leaves the room.
“Thackeray had black characters, which is very unusual in 19th century fiction, but they are silenced,” Hughes explained.
“Sam has this fantastic role in the story, which is that he’s the only one who sees through little Madam: he identifies so much with his white employers that he sees her as a class threat, and for him class trumps race.”
She added: “I mean, I think the scene is unbelievably embarrassing. You go: no! Don’t talk like that! He can hear you! And we want our dramas to make them laugh, make them cry – to embarrass the hell out of them is also a good ambition.”
In another sphere of society is the character of Miss Rhoda Swartz (Siena Kelly), whose money speaks louder than her skin colour. Because she is an incredibly wealthy heiress with £200,000, she is educated at Miss Pinkerton’s, and after the Sedleys’ downfall George Osborne’s family immediately welcomes her with open arms as a possible match for their prodigal son.
In the novel, George (Charlie Rowe) mocks her horribly, declaring, “My sisters say she has diamonds as big as pigeon’s eggs. How they must set off her complexion! A perfect illumination it must be when her jewels are on her neck. Her jet-black hair is as curly as Sambo’s. I dare say she wore a nose-ring when she went to court; and with a plume of features in her topknot she could look a perfect Belle Sauvage.”
Even in her finery, he says, she is “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on Mayday.”
While Thackeray doesn’t make it clear where he stands on George’s view, it’s notable that one of his only non-white characters (called Swartz, presumably from the German word “schwartz”) is a good-natured but intellectually-challenged woman. At 23, she has only managed to learn two pieces on the piano and three songs; she writes letters spelling satin as “satting” and Saint James’s as “St Jam’s.”
The depiction is mocking, playing up to racial stereotypes of the time.
Thankfully, Hughes has rescued Miss Swartz from this fate. In the TV adaptation, Siena Kelly plays her role as charming, friendly, well-spoken and well-dressed.
Vanity Fair continues on Sundays at 9pm on ITV
This article was originally published on 9 September 2018