April 11, 2011

IconSarah Waters’ The Night Watch BBC adaptation: Lesbilicious review

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch loses none of its subtleties in its adaptation to the screen, writes Chloe Setter.

‘We might all be dead tomorrow,’ says Viv, one of the four main protagonists in the BBC2 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ highly acclaimed novel The Night Watch.

The statement is true, for Viv is living in World War Two London, in the darkest and most dangerous days of the Blitz – the setting for Waters’ fourth novel, published in 2006.

And this undercurrent of fear, and uncertainty of the future, is what drives the desires and motivates the actions of The Night Watch’s leading characters: Kay, Helen, Duncan and Viv.

It is therefore ironic that we the audience have no fear at all of what might happen to them – as we already know. This is because Waters begins her tale in the year 1947 and moves backwards to 1943, ending up in 1941. It is through this unusual chronological structure, which won much praise from critics, that we are introduced to the characters after the war has ended.

The genius and intrigue of the plot is that we time travel, through Waters’ rich and evocative storytelling, into the past – the dark and eerie days of air raids and sirens – to discover the stories of the mysterious protagonists; learning who they are and, more importantly, why.

Paula Milne, whose previous credits include Small Island and The Virgin Queen, faced a tough task in taking on the adaptation of the novel for the screen. She must also have felt the pressure of the successes of previous Waters’ adaptations, such as Tipping The Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity, all of which have drawn high acclaim.

Yet Milne, alongside director Richard Laxton, manages the task superbly: transforming Waters’ words into a wonderful 1940s war-weary world with a well-paced and authentic dialogue.

The adaptation, which according to its stars was shot in the freezing cold of December in Bristol, is cinematic yet embraces the mundane, conjuring up the insecurity of the age, as well as the drastic changes and freedom that came with it, particularly for women.

Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) takes on the challenge of playing Kay, a woman who prefers men’s clothing and finds her gender expressopm and personality coming alive through her role as an ambulance driver in the bomb-ridden streets of the capital.

Maxwell Martin handles this brooding yet likeable character with ease, which gives the entire 90 minutes of the film a backbone from which the remainder of the story hinges.


Her lover Helen is played by Claire Foy (Little Dorrit), a naive but emotionally needy woman who uses the war to both hide and exploit her sexuality.

The third corner of the love triangle involving Helen and Kay is the cynical and overtly sexual Julia, acted wonderfully by Anna Wilson-Jones.

Helen’s colleague Viv is played by Jodie Whittaker (Marchlands), who is compelling as the long-term mistress of blue-eyed soldier Reggie. Whittaker has real screen presence and her story of a woman striving to break free from the strict confines of the day is one that is utterly and tragically believable.

Duncan too, played by the earnest Harry Treadaway (Fish Tank), is a character defined by his inability to come to terms with his own actions, and like so many of the others, struggles to keep control of his sexual desires while the world around him twists and changes.

It is clear that for each of them, there is a war within the context of the wider war; one that tests their humanity, strength and the preconceptions of the past. We the audience are introduced to them once the sirens have quietened and the bombs have stopped falling; yet still a battle for freedom continues.

The details in this drama are wonderful. From the drab clothing to the evocative music, there is a real authenticity, and although it is a far cry from the raucous romp and comedy of Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watch’s more subtle revelations are perhaps even more powerful.

Sarah Waters herself told the audience at the premiere of the drama, as part of the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, “the past is another country, a different landscape”.

And like those left behind in the wake of a city destroyed, we too leave this tale finding it hard to forget our own journey to the past and the travellers we met along the way.

The Night Watch will be shown on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Tuesday 12 July 2011.

Read the exclusive Lesbilicious interview with Sarah Waters about the BBC adaptation.

17 Responses to Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch BBC adaptation: Lesbilicious review

  1. She who dares says:

    I absolutely loved Tipping the velvet & Fingersmith. Water’s is an amazing writer and judging by this write-up she is on course to deliver yet another successful lesbian-based, mainstream drama.

    Thanks for the great review!

  2. Emma says:

    Excellent review – can’t wait to watch this!

  3. Lou xx says:

    Sounds great,definitely be watching-can’t get enough of Sarah Water’s (stories)!

  4. Emma says:

    Any idea of when this will be airing? Thanks

  5. Helen says:

    The book was brilliant and if this is half as good, Walters will have another great success story

  6. Lesley says:

    I’m so looking forward to this! I’ve enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’s books and the adaptions, and The Night Watch is fantastic. Hope we don’t have to wait too long. :)

  7. janey lee says:

    It must be great and i’m looking forward to this drama.

  8. linda says:

    relase date 12/july 2011

  9. Piper says:

    More inappropriate television for our youngsters to watch.

  10. Haybee says:

    piper- why is this inappropriate? we havent even seen it yet!?

  11. Kim says:

    Piper considering its on at 9pm, it would be irresponsible of someone to let their ‘youngsters’ watch it!

  12. jo silcox says:

    I missed the TV showing – do you know when, if at all, it is likely to be repeated?

  13. Lucy says:

    Not sure about repeats but it is currently available on the BBC iPlayer. Don’t know how it’ll be up for.

  14. Kitty says:

    Excellent review! Really thorough and thoughtful. I loved the programme and am only a little sad that they didn’t make a series instead of a one-off: I haven’t read the book but felt like there was almost certainly a lot more to explore than they could fit into an hour and a half. If anyone is interested I blogged about my lesbian viewing this week at http://www.lipstickandteeth.wordpress.com – The Night Watch at one end of the cultural spectrum and Candy Bar Girls at the other!

  15. Doris says:

    Hi all was wondering if there will be further episodes? or was it just one? if so devastated, as need to see more!!!!!

  16. Donna says:

    Where can I buy the DVD??? Anyone help please ???

  17. Lucy.Brown says:

    It doesn’t seem to be on a well-known international website which surprises me. The BBC generally release their dramas on DVD fairly quickly but it might just be a case of waiting this time. They may release it in time for Christmas, I don’t know…