Katie Gill

I am in my second year studying English Literature. Poetry is one of my biggest passions and I enjoy writing (and occasionally performing) my own poetry, as well as attending spoken word nights and watching exciting new poets perform. I love studying in London because,...

‘The Casual Vacancy’: Underplaying Rowling’s Social Commentary

Sonia Belviso, 'Day 168': https://www.flickr.com/photos/soniabelviso/ (CC BY 2.0)

I love a good BBC adaptation. Bleak House is a personal favourite, with Charles Dance’s delightful performance as the stern and malevolent Mr Tulkinghorn and the spontaneous combustion of Johnny Vegas’ Mr Krook. Yes, Johnny Vegas spontaneously combusts. But, for about a year now, I have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of J.K Rowling’s first book for adults The Casual Vacancy on the small screen. On Sunday 15th February 2015 at 9pm the wait was finally over. I was back in Portsmouth for the weekend, the telephones were unplugged, mobile phones were switched off and everyone was condemned to silence. I just hope it’s good! I prayed as the opening credits started to roll and my Dad had already broken his vow of silence (as usual). Sigh.

The Casual Vacancy is set in a small village called Pagford in the west of England. In the opening chapters, beloved member of the community Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving his seat on the council vacant. This creates a frantic scramble among his fellow townsfolk to fill his position, although not everybody has good intentions. The major struggle of the novel concerns the council’s disagreement over whether or not to cut ties with the neighbouring council estate ‘The Fields’, an area that the late Barry Fairbrother was passionate about improving. From here emerges the themes of ignorance, class divides and social mobility, issues that are very poignant in our current political climate. Rowling herself has said that the novel is not only about the casual vacancy of Barry Fairbrother’s empty seat in the council, but about ‘vacancies’ in general. Each of her characters has a skeleton in the closet and each has a vice with which to purge feelings of emptiness, some of which are very close to my heart, such as alcoholism and OCD. Said skeletons begin to be revealed on the Parish Council website by a mysterious, seemingly omniscient figure, claiming to be the ‘Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’. Who is it? And what will be the consequences of his or her revelations? It is a truly moving and perceptive novel to which everyone will relate somehow. If you have not yet read it I highly recommend that you do!

I am disappointed to say that I was rather underwhelmed by the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation. Admittedly, much of this was because when you read a novel you create the perfect image of the characters in your mind, knowing where every freckle is on the nose, how they walk, how they talk, what they like to eat for breakfast. They become as much yours as they are the author’s. Unless that’s just me. But, because of this, it is sometimes difficult to accept that certain actors have been cast as these beloved characters. However, my disapproval of the casting of Michael Gambon as Howard Mollison is on more sensible grounds than this rather juvenile disappointment of the betrayal of one’s own imagined characters. Although it is lovely to see Gambon portraying another of Rowling’s characters (he was Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films), Howard Mollison is supposed to be morbidly obese and Gambon is nowhere near large enough. This may sound like a stupidly picky point, but Mollison’s weight is actually an important part of the book. Overeating is Mollison’s vice, that’s the point. It is one of the ways in which Rowling explores addiction in the novel. Heroin addict and mum of two Terri Weedon is demonised by the people of Pagford, and the snobby, middle-class townsfolk are keen to keep their distance.

Nobody bats an eyelid that Mollison continues to eat himself into an early grave despite having already undergone heart surgery. But really, there is no difference between Terri’s heroin addiction and Mollison’s overeating. Both cost the tax payer through the running of the methadone clinic and the need for heart surgery, yet Terri is constantly ostracised throughout the novel whilst Mollison believes that he is better than the people of The Fields. Rowling is clearly making the point that nobody has the right to judge others and Mollison’s weight is a crucial component of Rowling’s social commentary. It is one of the ways in which she unites humanity with mutual flaws in an attempt to ridicule prejudice. For this reason, Gambon should be given a padded suit.

Another frustrating thing was that, if I had not read the book, I would not have had a clue what was going on. Characters were not sufficiently introduced and there was too much unnecessary build up to Fairbrother’s death (he dies in the very beginning in the book). There were also way too many panning shots of the idyllic countryside setting (which, admittedly, is beautiful and perfectly suits Rowling’s purpose of creating a stark contrast between the middle-class village and the poverty-stricken Fields, but even so).

On a more positive note, Keeley Hawes’ performance as Samantha Mollison is spot on. Samantha is an unhappily married alcoholic and runs a lingerie business in the village. In the television series her shop is presented as almost like a fetishist shop, which creates a hilarious contrast to the otherwise peaceful and picturesque backdrop of the village. Samantha’s character is rather tongue-in-cheek. She is a bored middle-aged woman and takes to lusting after members of her daughter’s favourite boy bands. There is a kind of comic tragedy about her; although we know that her situation is melancholic we cannot quite take her seriously due to Rowling’s wickedly sharp dialogue which, thankfully, is transferred onto the small screen: ‘Look, Miles! Tits! Be a man! Grab a handful!’

Despite my initial disappointment, I will continue to watch to see if the series progresses more successfully. After all, I’m eager to see how the village reacts to The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’s first online post…

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