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A period romance, based on a classic 18th-century novel where “love conquers all”? It needs a big moment – that scene where hero and heroine realise they are definitively entwined, the air between them crackles and we, the swooning audience, become, in that instant, as committed to their love as they are. In the first episode of Tom Jones, a dramatisation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 book, the moment … never comes. The spark never lights. As a result, the show is four hours in workmanlike pursuit of nothing much.
Solly McLeod, fair of hair and square of temple, is the foundling Tom. He was abandoned as a newborn in the house of wealthy country magistrate Squire Allworthy (James Fleet) and brought up by the squire and his sister Bridget, lovingly but without any pretence that their ward is anything other than low-class. Partly, this is due to the household also containing the toxically snobby William Blifil (James Wilbraham), the result of Bridget’s brief marriage to a posh berk.
Tom is happy enough firing his catapult, running through woodland and, when he comes of age, lifting up the many petticoats of a poacher’s daughter. But when he is reacquainted as an adult with childhood friend Sophia Western (Sophie Wilde), the girl from the stately home next door, his life changes: they want to marry and cannot, because Tom is a bastard. Sophia is urged to marry the monobrowed inadequate Blifil instead. The resulting row leads to Tom being banished and Sophia taking flight. They both end up in London, where Tom, separated from Sophia, is drawn into sexy adventures.
The leading man here is meant to be rakish and roguish, ultimately an upstanding hero but one who needs to get a lot of crass mistakes out of his system before that goodness fully emerges. McLeod is too reserved a performer to pull this off: his Tom seems awfully sensible from the start. As Sophia, meanwhile, Wilde comes across as wet-eyed and childish, spending much of her time wailing, daydreaming or impotently stamping her foot. Neither protagonist seems capable of a rush of blood, to the heart or anywhere else: when they talk, flirt or even kiss, there’s nothing there.
That Sophia is a moping wally is unfortunate, given the efforts made to beef her character up. She’s the narrator of the piece, a conceit the dramatisation doesn’t fully commit to, perhaps because her lack of agency means there isn’t a lot for her to say. In this adaptation, she’s also Black, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner who, upon the death of her slaver father, was sent from Jamaica to England to be raised by her rich white grandfather. We do on occasion see how her skin colour affects her life as a woman of means – intrigued stares thrown in her direction at a garden party; overt disgust from the staff of a roadside inn – but it is an issue that feels as if it’s being picked up and put down again on a whim.
None of this means Tom Jones is without its pleasures. The supporting players are a plush repertory of familiar names, many of them perfectly cast. Fleet is ideal for a Squire Allworthy written here as a wet liberal, essentially good-hearted but too morally weak to fight the cruel iniquities of a society that has given him prestige as a lawman. Susannah Fielding has fun as Mrs Waters, who initially comes across as unthinkingly horny, pointing her clavicles at any passing man, but soon proves to be kind, wise and delighted by her own intelligence and capability. Daniel Rigby serves up nearly all the laughs as Tom’s ratty, outraged sidekick Benjamin Partridge, while Felicity Montagu does unobtrusively fine work in her double-edged scenes as Bridget, whose survival to the end of the story is a simple and obvious improvement on the original narrative.
Not everyone delivers: Alun Armstrong is cartoonish as Sophia’s grandfather Squire Western, working with a script that doesn’t explore the conflict between his soppy doting and his brutally misogynist enforcement of traditional marriage-for-status. Shirley Henderson’s Aunt Western is a chewy stew of eccentric-spinster quirks. But Hannah Waddingham holds episode three together as the imperious, monstrous Lady Bellaston, jonesing for Tom’s youthful virility in the hope that she can imbibe it like an elixir of youth, and looking ready to bite his head clean off when he spurns her. The biggest laugh of the series comes when Lady B, her fearsomeness starting to ebb, is forced to hide behind a curtain and is then revealed, a picture of chaotic defiance.
Waddingham is a real presence, shifting from sexy to funny to bitterly tragic with ease. But even she can’t make Lady Bellaston’s scenes with Tom sizzle, because he merely lets her happen to him: like this version of his story, he wanders politely without much purpose.