News from the set of BBC’s epic WWI drama Birdsong, now in production, is slow in coming, but here’s what we know at this point:
In May, the BBC revealed that Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel of illicit love, friendship under fire, and the ‘Great War’ that eventually alters everything, would finally be produced as a two-part television drama. This possibly disappointed some fans who for years have looked forward to a big screen adaptation.
That this hugely popular bestseller is coming to the screen at all, however, is certainly cause for excitement. Early, if so far meager, indications are that viewers will not be disappointed.
Birdsong is the story of young Englishman Stephen Wraysford, who, while temporarily attached to a textile plant in France in 1910, finds himself drawn to the plant owner’s beautiful wife Isabelle. They soon begin an intense affair that eventually meets an abrupt – and unexpected — end.
Much of the novel is set six years later, in the trenches near Amiens, during the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme. Wraysford and his friend Michael Weir are officers in charge of miners who dig tunnels and set explosives beneath enemy lines prior to the campaign.
One of the miners is Jack Firebrace, whose life will intersect with Stephen’s in a profound way.
Perhaps the most gripping arc in the story is the actual first day of the Somme battle itself. Faulks’ descriptions of the carnage and dreadful toll of that day are set forth with harrowing and unforgettable vividness. It’s the most chilling of several strong story arcs that have made Birdsong a much-loved – and bestselling – classic, and it’s sure to be the heart-rending set piece of the film.
Birdsong has sold more than three million copies worldwide.
Making Birdsong: the long odyssey from book to screen
In the BBC film, Stephen Wraysford is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (Saving Grace, Pillars of the Earth, Glorious 39). His lover Isabelle is portrayed by Clemence Poesy (Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, In Bruges).
“Birdsong had an overwhelming impact on me when I first read it as a teen,” says Redmayne.
While the story has been a gigantic best-seller since it appeared in 1993, and more recently has been produced on the West End stage in London, the novel has long eluded the transition to the big screen.
For 18 years, film rights-holder Working Title has tried to get it there. Many directors have been attached. A number of scripts have been commissioned. Actors have been named and then renamed, among them Ralph Feinnes, Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal.
The script being shot is by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady). Philip Martin (Wallander, Prime Suspect 7) is directing.
First Photos of Birdsong? and… the Battle of the Big Budgets
Filming got underway in Hungary in mid-June. One twitter post had Redmayne arriving at the airport in Budapest on June 10. Beyond that, scant information has been forthcoming.
As of August 29, however, these photos of Poesy and Redmayne, labelled Birdsong and bearing the stamp of BBC 1, have appeared on a Clemence Poesy fan site. The shots of Redmayne and Poesy together certainly embody the intensity of attraction between Stephen and Isabelle.
In May, BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson said Birdsong signals BBC’s intent to start making some of “the best drama in the world.” He added that the network aims to go head to head with American TV in the arena of big-budget drama.
The moving and uniquely British story of Birdsong is certainly big enough for such a budget. If all goes well with filming and post-production, there is no reason the result shouldn’t draw a massive audience, introduce many to the tragedy of the Somme, and give the Americans a run for their money.
* * *
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong Page (official)