The BBC drama department’s assault on the Sunday night TV schedule has been epic of late, a point of immense irony when you consider that their latest volley is set during one of the most indecisive wars that Britain has ever talked itself into. Much has been made of the way Birdsong would be faced with the task of holding on to Sherlock‘s immense audience share, but in all honesty, you’d be hard pressed to find something further removed.
Moffat’s detective revamp was all about rapid banter and innovative editing, but this drama is all nuance, silence and sepia-tinted war imagery. Indeed such emphasis is placed on the countless wordless exchanges that you wouldn’t be surprised if the script for this 90 minute offering accounted for no more than a couple of pages of A4. Abi Morgan might not have even needed turn the pages over. After having a stellar 2011, she fluffed her lines with the hopelessly misjudged Iron Lady this month, but this is a decent return to form for the much-feted screenwriter. The story of Stephen Wraysford, played out along two separate timelines, just before and during the First World War (and another which has yet to reveal itself). There’s atmosphere, emotion and an enough erotic voltage to jump start a Victorian nunnery, yet we aren’t allowed to get particularly close to any of our leads in the first half of this adaptation.
This certainly isn’t a failing on Morgan’s fault, as the book itself is as ambiguous as it is engaging. Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel has been consistently popular since it was first published, yet I struggle to recall many of the details. It was was enjoyable and easy to read, but there were no characters who stick around for long in your mind. We see the story through the eyes of Stephen, played by the thinly chiseled Eddie Redmayne, who does well with a very difficult character, capturing his aloof and dislocated manners with some skill. Clemence Poesy also does a decent job with even less to ammunition as Isabelle, Wraysford’s love interest.
Technically the mellow and detatched tone could make Birdsong a rather vapid and forgettable piece of drama, but as with Faulks’ novel, potential weaknesses are turned into strengths by a hazy yet distinctive aura. As such, the second half of this opening episode is significantly stronger than the first. Scenes from the trenches remain perilously elegiac, yet the blending of the two storylines is done with some skill in the final stages. The ecstasy of Stephen and Isabelle’s passionate affair in 1910 Amiens and the numb sadness as Wraysford is pulled from tunnels which stretch under the front by the big-hearted Jack Firebrace is woven expertly. A refined taste, but well worth the effort.