TV miniseries review: Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (2007), directed by James Hawes
Based on the novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, first published in 1748-1749, this BBC miniseries was recently re-run on BBC Four. Screenplay penned by Andrew Davies, who will forever be remembered amongst costume drama aficionados for Pride & Prejudice ’95 – it’s the man who invented That Lake Scene!
Fanny Hill follows the life of Fanny Hill (surprise, surprise), played by Rebecca Night (Cathy the younger in Wuthering Heights ’09). She’s a country lass whose parents die when she’s 15, and another local lass, Esther Davis (Emma Stansfield), suggests she moves down to London, like she has done herself.
Esther introduces Fanny to Mrs Brown (Alison Steadman, very far from Mrs Bennett!), who puts the girl up to share a room – and a bed – with Phoebe (Carli Norris). Phoebe wants to get real friendly with Fanny … and Fanny, wide-eyed and innocent as she is, agrees. It takes her quite some time to realise that the kind Mrs Brown is not very kind at all, but is in fact a brothel Madam.
Because Fanny is a virgin, she’s very sought after amongst the clients. Not knowing what is expected of her (or the men), Fanny is freaked out after her first attempt with a repulsive old man, but eventually her paths cross with a charming young man, Charles Standing (Alex Robertson). They fall in love at first sight, and he takes her away from there, and Fanny ceases being a virgin … They want to marry, but introducing his intended bride to Standing Senior turns out to be a bad idea. At least when Standing Sr turns out to be that repulsive old man mentioned earlier …
Charles is sent to the West Indies and Fanny is thrown out to fend for herself. But not for long! The mysterious Mr H (Hugo Speer) comes along and pays to keep her for himself, as a paid mistress. All is bliss, but Fanny misses Charles something terrible, and cannot make herself fall in love with Mr H. When they start playing games with each other, it leads to her being thrown out again … and eventually meets a milliner (by day), Mrs Cole (Samantha Bond). Will Fanny ever find her twu wuv Charles again, or is she doomed to be nothing but a prostitute to the end of her days?
If you’re easily offended by the slightest sexual content, or even naked people, don’t go anywhere near this adaptation. Or the novel (probably – it was banned for quite some time for being too lewd – just the plot description on Wikipedia is pretty explicit). There are plenty of naked people, to the point where Mr T now makes jokes about BBC Four costume dramas include men getting their bits out.
There are also plenty of displays of sex and sexuality – nothing really graphic; it’s the BBC, not porn – but for those who don’t mind the raunchiness, it’s a light-hearted take on a serious subject. Much of the light-heartedness coming from Fanny Hill’s own narration, which is done by her looking into the camera with a playful smile on her face, and she seems to not really mind all the horrible things that have happened to her.
The story feels far-fetched at times, especially at the end (which feels abrupt and forced – and very unsurprising), and the naiveté of the main character beggars belief. Even though she’s just a Northern country lass in the mid-1700s, can she really be that blind?
Nonetheless, it’s not a bad production, and two hours worth of sexual exploits is … perhaps not exactly what I thought when I started watching the first episode (it was rather channel hopping past BBC Four and thinking “ooh, a costume drama I haven’t seen!”), but yeah. Rebecca Night does a wonderful job of being wide-eyed and innocent, there are blokes in cravats and lush costumes – or lack thereof, as the case may be. It’s not really that memorable a story, and I’m afraid the lasting impression is going to be that of people taking their clothes off and gettin’ in on with one another, but at least it was a decent production. Or rather, indecent, har-de-har-har.
3 out of 5 brothels.