BBC’s ‘Tess’ doesn’t pass the test

New production trapped in Polanski's shadow

LONDON — She may be one of the great tragic figures of English literature but film and TV folk have only intermittently fallen under her spell.

But “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” written by Thomas Hardy and published in 1891, returns to British screens on Sept. 14, courtesy of a four-part mini-series on BBC flagship web BBC1.

Discounting commercial broadcaster ITV’s forgettable version a decade ago, perhaps the real reason why the period-drama-addicted BBC has until now shunned Hardy’s greatest heroine is because Roman Polanski’s 1979 “Tess,” starring Nastassja Kinski, nailed the book so successfully.

The pubcaster adapts Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels by the bucket load. By contrast Hardy remains on the shelf.

“Arguably Hardy is the most neglected of our great classic literary authors,” says Kate Harwood, executive producer of the new version of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” co-produced with Boston’s WGBH.

This, suggests producer David Snodin, is because Hardy’s novels tend to be heavy on melancholy and melodrama.

In other words, for all his brilliance as a creator of character and narrative, Hardy’s novels are noticeably lacking in the feel-good factor.

Incidentally, Polanski aside, Hollywood avoided Tess for most of the 20th century. The only other film versions were silent adaptations made in 1913 and 1924.

For the latest stab at this harrowing story of doomed love, Tess is played by Gemma Arterton.

The young English actress is better known as the new Bond girl, having been cast as Agent Field in the latest 007 caper “Quantum of Solace.”

Only a very exceptional actor is capable of making Tess her own, especially since Kinski played the part.

Alas, Arterton’s perf isn’t of that order. Having said that, the most successful scenes in the opening episode on a review screener are those that occur between her and her nemesis Alec D’Urberville, a role convincingly taken by Hans Matheson.

One of the problems with this Tess is that the heroine looks too modern.

Despite some imaginative casting that sees veteran English thesp Anna Massey playing Mrs. D’Urberville and Ruth Jones (unforgettable as Nessa in Britcom “Gavin and Stacey”) as Tess’ mother, this is a BBC literary adaptation that seems short on atmosphere and somewhat under-wrought.

Maybe the problem is that we are too familiar with the story — or maybe, in these cash-strapped times, not even the Beeb has enough coin to put a novel of this scope onto the smallscreen.

Yet following last fall’s “Cranford,” based on the far less famous novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, the BBC (again working with WGBH) set the bar for such fare ridiculously high.

In July “Cranford,” blessed by a career-defining perf from Eileen Atkins, won eight Emmy nominations.

When it aired in the U.K. in November, “Cranford” won audience shares of around 30% as some 8 million viewers tuned in, a remarkable figure for a literary drama in the multi-channel era.

There ought to be a message here for the BBC about how it approaches period drama in the future.

“Tess” is perfectly watchable, well-crafted “quality” TV. However, audiences demand and expect more.

“Cranford” and the BBC’s 2006’s reinvention of Dickens’ “Bleak House” showed that TV literary skeins can be as compelling as the very best contemporary drama.

The tragedy of this latest “Tess” is that it is too traditional and risk-averse by half.