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‘The Casual Vacancy’

The previous two books adapted by Sarah Phelps for BBC television were Oliver Twist (the one with Timothy Spall as an unusually cuddly Fagin) and Great Expectations (the one with Gillian Anderson as an unusually sexy Miss Havisham). Now in a joint production with HBO she’s tackling another incident-packed novel of social comment in which the rich and poor—and comedy and tragedy—constantly jostle up against each other: The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s first work for adults after Harry Potter had hung up his wand.

With a cast including Michael Gambon (last seen in a Rowling adaptation as Professor Dumbledore), the series depicts with obvious gusto the power struggles going on beneath the picturesque surface of an archetypal English village. But, as with Phelps’s versions of Dickens, it’s also unafraid to alter the original story, something that must have been trickier with a living author—and especially with J. K. Rowling, who’s been known to tell off her own fans in Harry Potter chat rooms for their blithe use of the name “Voldemort”.

“I went to meet her,” Phelps explained to me with some relief in a recent interview, “and we saw eye to eye. It would have been difficult if she hadn’t been as classy as she was. She read the scripts and sent ideas, but they weren’t always obeyed. There was only one thing where she said ‘I’m not sure about that’, and she was completely right. [Sadly, Phelps doesn’t elaborate.] But she was always clear that the adaptation was my job.”

The Casual Vacancy will air on April 29 and 30 on HBO.

Category: Television
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