I’ve read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. I know I’ve read it. I remember getting it. And only a few years ago. I even looked it up on my bookshelves last week and it’s still there. But I remember nothing of it. Absolutely nothing. I know there’s a love story to it, and that part of it is set in the war; I remember glimpses about France, but nothing else. I flicked through it last week and still couldn’t remember anything about it.
Hardly a ringing endorsement then for the book I suppose. Or maybe compiling evidence that my memory is rubbish. But I have been looking forward to the BBC adaptation of Birdsong. Maybe because BBC One has been trailing it for about a month now. But people far more astute than me have already pointed out that the BBC One ‘Original Programming’ trailer is a bit suspect when not only is Birdsong an adaptation of a novel, but so are Call the Midwife and Sherlock.
Oh, Sherlock. Sherlock made Sunday nights in 2012 must see-tv nights, and Birdsong has big shoes to fill. But it has sweet Eddie Redmayne in it. I remember him in The Good Shepherd; he was in the excellent BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Gemma Arterton a few years back; he was in the not as good adaptation of Pillars of the Earth; and of course more recently in My Week with Marilyn (which I have yet to see). It also has Clémence Poésy in it – I’ve only seen her in Gossip Girl in a thankless role as a French girl who finds the shot Chuck Bass – but apparently she was in the recent Harry Potter films too.
So Birdsong uses the device of flashbacks, flitting between the trenches in 1916 France and a summer in 1910 Amiens.
In 1910, Stephen Wraysford (Redmayne), a 20 year old man, has come to spend the summer in Amiens with a factory-owner Rene Azaire and his family, to observe his new clothing machinery. Azaire has a 9 year old son, Gregoire, a 15 year old daughter, Lisette, and a young second wife called Isabelle (Poésy). The workers are on strike, Isabelle is providing bread for the striking workers and their families, Wraysford likes to draw, he overhears Isabelle crying at night and is immediately attracted.
In 1916, Wraysford is a Lieutenant in charge of his infantry. But they are being called to provide cover for a group of tunnellers. These ‘sewer-rats’ as he calls them, are building tunnels in order to place mines under the German trenches. It’s risky work, not only because the air could run out at any time (hence the ‘birdsong’ title – referring to the canary birds used to indicate the existence of air, which are only seen fleetingly), but because the tunnels could collapse, get flooded (as they do near the start of the episode) or the Germans could hear the miners below them and ambush them.
But hang on, who is the chief miner? It’s Jack Firebrace played by Joseph Mawle, seen recently on Game of Thrones as Benjen Stark. And who’s his Captain – Captain Weir who shares a room with Wraysford. Only frigging Robb Stark, Benjen’s nephew. i.e. Richard Madden. Utilising his natural Scottish accent.
The dialogue is beautifully sparse in this episode. In both 1910 and 1916. Lots of meaningful body language by Redmayne, Poésy, and Mawle. Wraysford doesn’t want his men to go down in the tunnels; he’s stern, reprimands Firebrace fiercely for falling asleep on watch, but shows compassion for a dying man. He’s eventually forced by his superior (played by a gaunt Matthew Goode – once meant to be the next big thing) to go down to the tunnels as well. And he gets shot by the Germans down there.
As he flits in and out of consciousness, we get more and more flashbacks of 1910. He has become embroiled in a passionate sexual affair with Isabelle. But when he talks about running away with her, she just smiles. Her step-daughter works out they are having an affair and tries to sexually blackmail Wraysford, but he declines. And then Azaire finds out that Isabelle has been providing bread to his workers (who continue to remain on strike). They have a big fight at the dinner table, and the truth of the affair also comes out.
Meanwhile in 1916, Wraysford having been shot has been left to lie with the other dead bodies, presumed dead. Firebrace feels some compassion for him and wants to find his body to say a prayer over him. And in 1910, Azaire threatens Isabelle so she runs away with Wraysford. They leave in a carriage that night. Firebrace finds Wraysford’s body, and sees that he is still alive. Wraysford is murmuring about Isabelle. Firebrace carries him away.
So, of course, Wraysford wasn’t going to die so soon into the first episode. And of course the affair was inevitable. The ‘Next Time’ bit at the end hints at both happiness and heartbreak. I’ve been enjoying it so far, and have only a hazy recollection of what will happen next. Until next week…