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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Melanie McDonagh

Tom Jones on ITVX review: Hannah Waddingham leaves a real mark in this tale of class, sex and money

There’s lots to like about Tom Jones the Henry Fielding novel and nothing not to like about Tom Jones the ITV adaptation. The costumes – wigs! Bodices! Gowns! Tricorn hats! – are irresistible.

Since you’re asking, Solly McLeod as the eponymous Tom Jones – fresh faced, adorably roguish public schoolboy – is indeed terrifically Poldark, without the brooding element. The plot is, as the writer Gwyneth Hughes, puts it, “the mother of all romcoms”.

There’s sex in the story so the series isn’t traducing Henry Fielding – and yes, BBC Great Expectations, I am looking at you – but it’s not so filthy as to be tiresome. There are lush English country houses seen from their surrounding meadows.

There’s class and sex and money, those failsafe themes of English fiction. And there’s Hannah Waddingham as Lady Bellaston who does snobbish sneers and big hair like no one else in the business.

So, a nice four part series for a bit of uplift then. The great thing about Tom Jones is that it’s not Jane Austen and it’s not Dickens. So, other than a 1990s BBC series and a rollicking Albert Finney version in 1963 there haven’t been umpteen versions done already.

And as not many people have read the novel, there are few expectations about the characters. As for the plot – foundling Tom Jones is adopted by avuncular Squire Allworthy (the name says it all), is set up by his beastly foster brother, jumped on by women, thwarted in his bid to marry lovely Sophia, forced to make for London to clear his name, returns home and… does he find out his parentage and marry the heiress? I couldn’t say.

Poldark-esque... Solly McLeod as Tom Jones (ITV)

But there is a rub, and it’s the decision of Gwyneth Hughes to inject some contemporary relevance into the story by making our heroine Sophia a mixed race daughter of a slave-owning father and slave mother in Jamaica.

As she has cheerfully acknowledged, slavery simply doesn’t feature in Fielding, so she’s decided to bring him up to speed, while passing over the actual politics in the book, viz Jacobites and Hanoverians.

The thing is, in the story, Sophia Western is way above the poor illegitimate Tom Jones – left as a foundling in his adoptive father’s bed – precisely because she’s a respectable rich heiress. But when we find Tom sharing his foundling story with Sophie only for her to unburden herself about her mother being a slave and herself illegitimate, well, it changes the dynamic of the whole thing.

There’s a degree of equality there, even though Sophia is rich and Tom poor. It makes Squire Western’s furious observation to nice Mr Allworthy about “your bastard of a bastard” – that is, Tom himself – a bit odd.

Actually, the two squires are a brilliant bit of casting. James Fleet, of Bridgerton, channelling Jim Broadbent, is everyone’s idea of a worthy country gentleman – in the story he’s all Christian charity. Alun Armstrong as Squire Western is as bluff as the original – hopelessly given to horses and dogs (alas, Sophie here has a very modern sympathy with the fox) with a physiognomy that looks as ravaged as a lunar landscape.

He only lacks the Somerset burr. And James Wilbraham as Tom’s bitter, self-righteous cousin Blifil has a face to match. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to dig very hard to uncover character here; it’s right there, on the surface.

And did I mention that Hannah Waddingham as Lady Bellaston has a very fine triumphant sneer? She only arrives at the end of the second episode, but boy, she makes a mark.

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