With a mischievous glint in her eye and plenty of knowing winks, Fanny relates her journey from wholesome naif to worldly woman. After losing her parents to smallpox, the poor country girl travels to London, where she falls into prostitution under the guidance of an infamous madam. Forced to take a series of lovers to survive, Fanny learns to relish sensual delights – but reserves her heart for one true love.
eyelights: Fanny’s breaking of the fourth wall. the production quality. the sexy bits.
eyesores: some of the performances.
“I’m ashamed to say my body betrayed me. And so I learned the extremes of sensual delight need have nothing to do with true love. A cruel lesson for a girl with a romantic disposition, but I think many women may have made that bitter-sweet discovery for themselves. Now I was truly learning to be a woman of pleasure.”
After watching the 1983 version of ‘Fanny Hill’, I discovered that there had been a number of different adaptations of John Cleland’s book about a good country girl losing her virtue in the big city in the 18th century. This 2007 television two-part mini-series is a UK production that was first aired on BBC Four.
I’m not sure exactly how faithful this version is. Since I haven’t read the book, my only point of reference is the other film – which, being a sex comedy, is likely not exact in its recounting of the story. Both have very similar elements, however, even if the accent was on different aspects.
One of the key changes is that this version takes a more serious (and presumably more faithful) approach to the material than the 1983 version did. Still, it has its moments of lightness, particularly during the saucier bits – which were clearly meant to be fun, not serious. This Fanny is neither timid nor prude.
In fact, I must say that I found it sexier than the other one, although it was less explicit (it was, after all, on TV); there was something about the staging that helped, but it was also the fact that any naughtiness could be taken at face value, whereas the other one mostly played things for laughs.
The quality of the production was very nice. Having been shot in Britain, the filmmakers obviously had access to period locations and didn’t have to depend on sets – which would invariably have been lacking in comparison. This production looks and feels real throughout.
The actors were also fairly decent, if not perfect. Some of them overdid their lines in some areas, but those moments were passable anyway; one wouldn’t expect Laurence Olivier-level performances for a television production of this sort anyway, so my expectations were low.
Rebecca Night, who played Fanny Hill, was not entirely convincing to me. She was lovely to look at, a natural beauty as it were, and she did incarnate the character rather well, but there were some moments when it felt as though she were performing theatre, not incarnating Fanny.
Bizarrely enough, the moments I found her the best were when she talked straight at us, recounting her tale. It was more formal, more artificial, and yet it was more appealing, as though some sort of intimate connection were being made. I can’t say that this always works for me, but it did here.
The rest of the time, she wavered being a naturalistic approach and a more theatrical one, which annoyed me somewhat, if only because it took me out of the moment. Now, admittedly, Night was a novice at the time, so this may have something to do with it – even the best actors can be shaky in their early days.
But it’s also quite possible that the issue was the direction, given that she wasn’t alone to suffer from a few trouble spots: for example, Alex Robinson, who played Charles (“her sweetheart”), frequently delivered his lines with a goofy Jack Lemmon grin. Clearly, the director could have settled that matter very quickly, but didn’t.
The issue could also be the script, as there were moments when Fanny became cold, calculating, in a way that seemed out of character for a good-natured country girl who was pleasant the rest of the time; she would suddenly be cruel to the men in her life, saying harsh things to them, and could become disconnected from her humanity.
Was this inherent to the source material, or is the adaptation to blame? I plan to find out. After seeing two versions of ‘Fanny Hill’, I’m very curious to read the original. Does it read well now? Would it still be controversial today? And how sexy might it be some 200 years after conception?
Until I picked up the 1983 version of ‘Fanny Hill’ I had no idea of its literary pedigree, of the book’s significance on a cultural level. Now that I’ve taken a bite of this apple there’s no turning back. Stay tuned for more ‘Fanny’.
Date of viewing: September 3, 2013