Published: 09 September 2010
by DAN CARRIER
THE real star of Tamara Drewe, the Stephen Frears film out this week, is not the 24-year-old lead, Gemma Arterton, nor the celebrated director who has brought this tragic comedy to life: the plaudits instead belong to the artist who created the tale, Guardian illustrator Posy Simmonds, and standing close behind her, novelist Thomas Hardy.
Simmonds produced Tamara Drewe as a series of 110 episodes that played out every weekend, starting in September 2005. It quickly became a must-see staple of Saturday’s Guardian Review section, a high-brow soap opera based loosely on Hardy’s novel. Far From The Madding Crowd. Now she admits a fascination with seeing her work on the big screen.
“It is weird,” says the Bloomsbury-based artist. “I used real life and turned it into 2-D drawings. Stephen Frears has taken 2-D drawings and made them into 3-D people. The metamorphosis is odd to watch, but he is very, very faithful to the book.”
It was not the first time Simmonds had drawn on classic literature to produce a strip for the Guardian. She had worked on a weekly serial called Emma Bovary, based on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It was a hit and became a graphic novel. The same has happened with Tamara Drewe.
“Gemma had been in G2, but Tamara was for the Review,” she says.
“My idea was to make it quite literary. After all, it was going to be amongst all those book reviews.
“I thought I would do something about a writer’s retreat in the countryside. I vaguely cast a temptress like Tamara Drewe, and did some preliminary sketches. I knew what the series would look like, and what this place would look like, but had not really worked out a plot.”
It was then that Thomas Hardy came to the rescue. Hardy’s book also first appeared in instalments: it ran in the Cornhill magazine in 1874.
“The phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ came to me and I thought: that might be good fun,” says Simmonds. “But I didn’t want my inspiration to be too obvious. I wanted to bury the novel within the story, so that if you did not know the book, it did not matter, but if you did, you’d get it. Poor old Thomas Hardy, I nicked his six primary characters and added some twists and turns of my own.
“In Tamara Drewe I mention Hardy just once. I did get a few letters, after about 30 to 40 episodes, asking if I had ripped things off from Far From The Madding Crowd.”
So she sketched out the tale of Beth and Nicholas Hardiman, a woman who runs a writer’s retreat and her errant husband, a crime writer. The plot gets started when Tamara returns to the village of her childhood, where Beth and Nicholas live, now writing a newspaper column and with a nose job. Her reappearance causes a stir – local lad Andy Cobb, a gardener and salt of the earth, has a crush on her but she has a rock star boyfriend now. For Posy, it personifies a clash between metropolitan and rural cultures. Then there are village teens Jody and Casey, who hang out all day at the bus shelter and also develop intense teen crushes on Gemma’s rock star squeeze. Throw in Nicholas’s own romantic entanglement with the title character and things get rather messy.
Despite basing the book on Hardy’s novel, Simmonds admits she did not know how the adventure would conclude.
“I did 30 episodes in advance and was well ahead of deadlines but life took over and I got very far behind,” she recalls. “At one point I was just a week ahead. It got pretty hairy. It was picked up every Tuesday, ready for Saturday’s edition. It was exciting – somehow it helps bring the story alive – the plot is hatching as you are doing it.”
She also portrays a dog-eared rural existence, while poking fun at the shallow nature of urban life.
“I wanted a village full of weekenders that is pretty awful for the indigenous population,” she says. “The schools, the post office, the stores, the pub, the bus services, all closing.”
Such desolation will undermine the Richard Curtis ideals normally portrayed of the country in British movies.
CLICK HERE FOR DAN CARRIER'S FILM REVIEW FOR TAMARA DREWE