Friday, July 28, 2017

Rosemary Ashton's "One Hot Summer"

Rosemary Ashton is Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, University College London.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858:
If my book One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 were to be adapted as a film, I would choose some of Britain’s most admired and award-winning actors, and an award-winning director.

My first choice of director would be Sir Nicholas Hytner, until recently Director of the National Theatre in London, and now Director of a new theatre, the Bridge Theatre, which is due to open in October 2017. Hytner has directed for theatre, opera, and film. Two of his most acclaimed films are adaptations of plays by Alan Bennett: the award-winning The Madness of King George (1994) adapted from the stage play, The Madness of George III, which Hytner also directed, at the National Theatre in 1991, and The History Boys (National Theatre 2004, film version 2006). He also directed the hugely successful farce by Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors (2011).

I would choose fine English actors to play the three main characters.

Charles Dickens was 46 in summer 1858 and undergoing a crisis in his domestic life, fearing he would lose his adoring public when his separation from his wife of 22 years, and rumours about his affair with an 18-year-old actress, became headline news. Dickens would be played by Rufus Sewell, well known for his part in the BBC’s highly successful adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch in 1994. More recently Sewell appeared as Alexander Hamilton in HBO’s miniseries John Adams (2008), and as Lord Melbourne in Victoria, a television drama about the life of the young Queen Victoria.

Charles Darwin was 49 in 1858, and also faced a crisis in that hot summer, with the death of his infant son and the shock arrival of a letter from a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, outlining the same theory of natural selection on which Darwin had been working for 20 years. Darwin now feared losing precedence. The part would be played by one of Britain’s finest actors, Simon Russell Beale, who has portrayed characters as varied as Uncle Vanya, Galileo, Hamlet, and John le Carré’s George Smiley. Russell Beale could best portray both Darwin’s humility and courtesy towards his fellow scientists and his determination to achieve his proper fame as the author of the work he was now galvanised into completing and publishing in 1859 in the shape of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Species in the Struggle for Life.

Benjamin Disraeli was 53 in 1858, and newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby’s Tory (conservative) government. He was only just making his way in politics, after a slow start and a lack of trust in him from his own colleagues. For Disraeli, the summer of 1858 was one of triumph, since he was the chief mastermind of the Thames Purification Act, which he forced a reluctant Parliament into passing in July 1858, tasking the innovative engineer Joseph Bazalgette with taking the stinking raw sewage out of the Thames by means of intersecting sewers hidden under handsome stone embankments. Disraeli won round his colleagues, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the newspapers with his energy and brilliance in debate. He would be played by Sir Antony Sher, who has played the part of Disraeli before, in the film Mrs Brown (1997). He also acted in Shakespeare in Love (1998), and has won several awards for his theatre and television representations of King Lear, Richard III, Primo Levi, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and more. His versatility would suit well the part of the mercurial Disraeli.
Learn more about One Hot Summer at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue