Friday, July 15, 2011

A Room Without A View

Here's a curious one. In April, a new BBC4 adaptation of John Braine's ground-breaking 1957 novel Room at the Top was pulled from the schedules due to "a potential contractual issue" just a couple of days before its advertised broadcast. It was to be one the main attractions of the channel's much-heralded Modern Love season, which examined changing British attitudes towards love and sex throughout the 20th century and also included a new version of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. The novel, which was at the time of its release a significant addition to the newly-emerging trend in "angry young men" social realism, was originally adapted into a successful Oscar-winning film in 1959 directed by Jack Clayton.

It follows the fortunes of a recently demobbed young social climber named Joe Lampton who leaves his impoverished background in a Yorkshire factory town in the late 1940s for an office job in more illustrious surroundings. There, he falls in with the local amateur dramatic society and falls for its leading light, the much-older desperate housewife Alice Aisgill. The two-part 2011 adaptation stars Maxine Peake and Matthew McNulty, pictured above, as Alice and Joe. Mr McNulty, interviewed as recently as last week, said that he is hopeful that the drama will air at some stage but that negoitiations are still taking place.

The question remains how an institution, which is no stranger to the odd literary adaptation, was caught out by a third party contacting it with a copyright claim when he/she heard of this new Room at the Top. The BBC, it seems, bought the rights to the novel from Braine's widow in good faith. According to culture vulture Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian when the kerfuffle first began, securing rights is a trickier business than it might appear to be. "In the case of novels and stage plays being adapted for TV" he says "numerous options may be sold on a particular property over time, relating to different time periods and media, with the additional complication that rights holders may die, fold or be taken over. So the chain of control can become very complex. Such confusion is particularly common in the case of creative people who led messy lives and allowed their affairs to fall into a chaotic state." When put in those terms, it seems surprising that these issues do not arise more often!

I do hope that a deal can be reached as advanced word on Room at the Top was very good indeed. This unusual case, initially embarrassing for the BBC, may ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise. It has attracted considerable attention from sources as diverse as established newspapers and fledgling blogs and I would be surprised if this is not reflected in the ratings!

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