It’s a story that’s beguiled readers since Victorian times, and it’s every bit as captivating today…
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was the 1848 version of a blockbuster.
Despite its length (even by Victorian standards), the story captured the hearts of countless readers.
The plucky protagonist, Becky Sharp, and her social-climbing, charmingly manipulative ways may have been an unlikely character for the times, but something about her grit and determination compelled readers.
Now, ITV are reintroducing the timeless tale to a 2018 audience with their new series. With rising star Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, and established names such as Frances de la Tour and Martin Clunes forming an all-star cast, it’s sure to fill the period-drama void in your life.
There are plenty of twists and turns, but here are a few things you probably never knew about Vanity Fair before you start watching…
1. The name comes from another popular story
Nope, nothing to do with the society magazine.
Thackeray took the name Vanity Fair from another story: John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bunyan’s story is a Christian allegory of a man attempting to reach Heaven, but being tempted and tried and generally messed with en route.
One of the ‘towns’ he stops in is Vanity Fair, where the Devil sells things to tempt human desires. It’s meant to be a representation of all our attachments to worldly things and vanities in one place, hence the name.
2. Thackeray didn’t really want a ‘hero’
Early versions of Vanity Fair had the tagline “A novel without a hero”.
Unlike other tales of the time that had a saccharine-sweet heroine, or cartoonishly evil baddies, Thackeray’s tale is much more realistic.
At times, you will root for all of them, and at other times, none of them. All the characters have their strengths and foibles, moments of honour and times of utter dishonour – just like in real life.
His book was lengthy even for the Victorians though, which meant Gwyneth Hughes who adapted the book for ITV’s Vanity Fair had to cut chunks out to fillet the book down into seven moreish episodes, still encapsulating all the mood and action.
According to Hughes, “The second half of the book goes round the houses a bit, so I cut a lot there. Everyone has too many relatives, so a lot of them went in the bin.
“My goal was to reach into the heart of Vanity Fair, to follow the simple story of a friendship between two girls from different sides of the tracks. One starts out poor, the other starts out rich. Luck and hard work reverse their fortunes, more than once. Their ending is bittersweet and unforgettable.”
3. Some of London’s best-loved spots were filmed for the show
Period dramas have that special power to whisk us away to another world but a lot of the scenes from Vanity Fair were shot in places you can visit today.
The scenes in ‘Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ were actually filmed in a specially created set in Syon Park. The grounds surrounding Syon House in west London are breathtaking and the house isn’t too shabby, either.
Well worth a visit.
4. Filming made the cast sick
You wouldn’t think that filming a period drama about the upper classes would be too perilous but there was one scene that got Olivia Cooke (Becky Sharp), Claudia Jessie (Amelia Sedley) and co all in a frenzy.
“The six of us were sat filming on a merry-go-round for what felt like hours. Going round and round. There was a point after a little bit too much spinning where we were all delirious. Laughing so much.
“We had the incredible Michael Palin there being William Makepeace Thackeray. So it was all a bit surreal: merry-go-round, Michael Palin, a monkey,” says Jessie.
5. Filming the Battle of Waterloo was a battle in itself
One of the biggest challenges of filming was the logistical nightmare of re-enacting the Battle of Waterloo.
Director James Strong said, “We had 400 supporting artists, stunt men, 50 horses, special effects and drones with two to three units shooting every day.
“It was an amazing logistical experience to transform this farm in Reading, Mapledurham, where they shot The Eagle Has Landed. We were there for over a week and there was a massive camp site, including 200 men who trained in a boot camp to depict Napoleonic soldiers.”
Not your usual 9-5, is it?
Be sure to tune in - Vanity Fair starts this Sunday on ITV at 9pm.