Russell T Davies and Dennis Potter – two of TV’s most esteemed writers – have written dramas based on the memoirs of the famous libertine. Written thirty-four years apart, how do the two separate series compare…?
Giacomo Casanova and his many adventures have seeped into our cultural memory. The real-life lover from eighteenth century Italy was a novelist, a gambler, a criminal and then an escapee, a nobleman, an inventor of the lottery, a dabbler in law, religion, music – and apparently, most enduringly, pretty good in bed.
No wonder he has been seen as excellent story opportunity! His memoirs are crying out to be adapted in a visual medium, and that is exactly what Dennis Potter did for BBC TV in 1971, and Russell T Davies did with Red Production Company and BBC Wales in 2005.
They may both be working from the same source material, but these interpretations of the notorious ‘character’ do vary. Having said that, the writers were not quite using the same source material. Davies’s drama originated from executive producer Julie Gardener, who thought that the memoirs would make for exciting television. According to T is for Television, they then spent a while trawling through historical ephemera as research before the series was begun. By contrast, Potter was given the idea by Histoire de mi vie passing across his desk, but he worked exclusively from a list of facts about Casanova when writing his version.
Significantly given the story is about the travels and tribulations of an adventurer, both writers scale back the whimsy by locking up Casanova! (Obviously there were times when the real Casanova was caged, but the point is that both dramas emphasise it.) As a result, although they diverge in content, both dramas are structured in much the same way. Potter’s drama uses Giacomo’s incarceration as the spine of the series, before drifting into his remembering and dreaming of past and future encounters. Meanwhile, Davies more conventionally uses the incarceration as a plot point midway through the miniseries.
However, the 2005 retelling of the story foregrounds an Old Casanova, haunting the turrets of a Bohemian castle in his twilight years, played by the marvellous late Peter O’Toole. In the same way that Potter off-sets the horror of imprisonment with the dirty, imprisoned Casanova, Davies contrasts the sprightly David Tennant with the aged (but, it transpires, still mentally sprightly) Casanova. This Casanova may not be formally locked up as before, but he is similarly ill-treated, malnourished, and crucially unable to do most of the things that made his name. Showcasing the man’s recesses draws out the man’s excesses is a clever technique. It is interesting that both writers felt the need to distance us from the wild adventures of the libertine. Perhaps this is down to a temptation to restrict the licentiousness of the drama. There is certainly more of a sense of weight given to the shows because of this. Casanova was a complex, clever and possibly troubled individual – not just a lady-killer. He was certainly more complicated than cultural perception has it known.
In a further, neat comparison, Potter also carries on the Casanova narrative until the old man’s residence in the castle. Unlike the Tennant/O’Toole partnership, Frank Finlay plays both a younger and an older Casanova (very convincingly, thanks to some great makeup.) Potter, like Davies, puts emphasis on Casanova’s bookishness towards the end of his life, and his decline in status, and his lusting after the girls who serve him. It is when this is shown – in episode six “Golden Apples” – that the two series start to really correlate.
When Russell T Davies’s Casanova begins, you think it is going to be all bonnets and big frocks – until soon-to-be-teen-heartthrob David Tennant jumps through a window and cries, “Bollocks!” It’s a very deliberate and clever writing choice to straightaway dispel that impression of a ‘period drama’, by exaggerating the fundamental cheek of the character.
On the other hand, Potter’s Casanova is a bit ‘bonnets’. It is quite clear you are not watching Cranford, but the more luxurious pacing does at times lend it that feel. The production (and contemporary style) constraints on Potter’s Casanova means that you don’t quite get as strong a sense of the adventurer as Davies shows us. The 2005 Casanova feels like it voyages further and wider than Potter’s, which is more about dark rooms in which sexual assaults and brooding takes place. However, at the risk of sounding like I am criticizing Potter’s, the greater sense of length in Davies’s suggests Potter’s has a greater feeling of depth. Davies has said in interviews that he is aware some people consider his writing lightweight because it is often optimistic, and one could form that opinion, or make that mistake, watching Casanova.
One device that both writers adopt almost frame-for-frame, is the montage of Casanova’s conquests. Both set to cheeky, bolshie music, both focus on sexual encounters rather than anything else… except for the One True Love. Christina in 1971 Casanova and Henriette in 2005 Casanova are treated to less sexualised shots, due to their prioritised places in Casanova’s affections. Christina is seen to itch her nose seductively, while Henriette is often depicted in devilish red.
Interestingly, both characters are the screenwriters’ inventions. Perhaps this is because such a sprawling and multifaceted memoir needed an anchor – both series continually return to the women as touchstones, even after they stop being a romantic option or present in the main narrative. It is likely that the writers thought the story needed more cohesion, something to tie everything up in a neat, red bow. Plus, it moves Casanova away from the figure of a soulless ‘humper and dumper’ to something more like a conventional leading man.
The relationship between Casanova and women is one way in which the series differ, although in fairness they are trying to do different things deliberately. Potter’s Casanova is very much concerned by the negative effects of the man’s sexual appetite, both for the men and the women. Davies’s retelling, meanwhile, seems to be driving towards uncovering why he is the way he is, and how that could change. This is signalled by the scene at the beginning in which Casanova’s mother, played by Dervla Kirwan, is spotted during sex by her son, the scene in the middle in which Casanova’s son and Casanova have a similar encounter, and the scene at the end in which Casanova Junior overtakes his father in the deplorable act department, by knowingly wooing his own sister. It is a question of emphasis – this is not to say that the same ideas aren’t vaguely often present in the other. In another example, Davies places more emphasis on the fact that Casanova is not the nobleman he pretends to be, whereas Potter shows his intelligence to be less fraudulent or at least more natural.
To put it frankly, Potter’s Casanova is much more of a villain. You cannot imagine Tennant’s cheeky, lovable rogue involved in the sort of scene we get in 1971, with a woman crying no as Casanova’s uninvited hands fondle her breasts. There is an argument that Davies’s version is a cop-out, a bowing to the mainstream when the real man was much less likely to be respectful of women. There is also the argument that little evidence exists that suggests Casanova was violent. (But then the main source is his own memoirs, and he would be unlikely to write that down. So perhaps Potter’s success over Davies is more taking the memoirs less seriously…?)
But then, as Davies has said in interview, what strikes a reader when reading Casanova’s memoirs is the genuine warmth and affection with which he talks about his conquests. Not what you expect from the notorious sex addict. Davies shows him, instead, as a love addict, fumbling for a ring by the canal to present to Henriette, and listening every night to the woman in bed (after the sex of course). At one point, old Casanova insists they weren’t just notches on the bed post, with such sincerity that we believe him. There is something distinctly unthreatening about Tennant in the role, and therefore sexy.
But the real success here is not that Casanova treats the women with relative respect, but that the show treats the women with respect. Rose Byrne’s Edith holds her own better than all of the female characters in Potter’s drama put together; Henriette runs rings around Casanova from their first meeting onwards, essentially manipulating his whole life; and it is Belinio that helps show him the monsters he unwittingly makes. Potter’s women are almost exclusively there to be used, manipulated or bedded, which perhaps is a criticism of then-society rather than his ideologies.
Interestingly, the key gag of Casanova’s excesses in 2005 Casanova is also completely resisted by the 1971 telling. Episode 2 is literally called “One at a Time”, taken from a line of Casanova’s, where Tennant’s Casanova is more than happy to take multiple into the bedroom at a time! In fact he considers it quite the treat. He is also shown to dabble in homoeroticism, something at which the Finlay Casanova recoils.
There are numerous other smaller comparisons that display a similar reading of the source text. Both series make subtle references to Hell and sulphur. In the Davies version, the whole final set-piece in Naples is compared to Hell. Both series show mini or undeveloped set-piece sequences of the silly scrapes that Casanova gets into. Both series have sequences where Casanova loses all of his charm and poise and rages against the walls of the cell, and both are energetically directed. The Davies version is even cleverer, as director Sheree Folkson slightly angles the camera upwards. In other words, as Casanova is thumping around for an exit, the camera is favouring the escape route that he has not yet realised is there… The rooftop exit is given the same emphasis in Potter’s version, probably because it feels like such a pivotal moment in the Giacomo Casanova narrative. Potter even closes the series on this triumphant moment of escape. There is a difference in pace too, although that is unsurprising as television tastes changed greatly in the intervening thirty years. While Davies’s Casanova skips along, there are lull moments in Potter’s, such as episode three. This ‘padding’ in episode three, incidentally, throws up another interesting parallel. The main substance of the episode involves Casanova faking ‘magic’, essentially, in order to pull. It is supposed to be a demonstration of pathos and bathos – amusing and disturbing in turns – but it is played too straight to come off. But as I was watching, I couldn’t help thinking, if it had been played more knowingly, more jokingly, more wink-to-the-camera, it would have worked. In other words, if it had been a scene in David Tennant’s Casanova, it would have worked!
It is fair to say that the thrust of both dramas are so intrinsically linked to their protagonist – the title is the giveaway – and his charm and fun, that when that droops, the series does too. The last episode of Potter’s Casanova is distinctly more subdued due to the age of the libertine, and similarly the end of the Davies drama feels like the best days of adventure are firmly behind the adventurer.
Davies borrows Potter’s penchant for intertwining action with the words of a writer, and his direct to camera address. David Tennant raising his eyebrow at the viewers at home are among the most glorious moments of the show. It’s actually very surprising that Potter was never tempted to use such a Potteresque technique in Casanova – the protagonist is surely perfect wink-nudge fodder? It’s a technique that has served Potter so brilliantly before, the cynical campaign manager in Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton being one of my highlights.
Meanwhile, if we can believe that Potter could time travel into the future, then perhaps he borrowed from Davies too. Casanova has the same writer, executive producer and lead actor in early 2005 that will be at the helm of the revived Doctor Who by the end of 2005. It also has much of the same spirit of adventure and wit of the protagonist. There are definite comparisons to be made between the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Casanova, albeit a PG-version, and there are lines in Potter’s Casanova that echo the Who-style. In episode 5 he says, “I can’t stay long in any one place… It is a disease, a fever, always being so restless, always searching…”. It is a speech almost identical to many spoken by the Doctor.
As it happens, there are some connections between the writers. The prestigious Dennis Potter Television BAFTA Award was given to Russell T Davies in 2006, and Davies himself has often spoken of the virtues of Potter’s writing in interviews. (By which I mean, has called select classic Doctor Who scripts “up there with Dennis Potter”.) In 1971, when Potter’s Casanova was airing, Davies was only eight. But a self-confessed addict of TV, maybe the BBC was on in his parents’ house at that time, and maybe he caught a glimpse…
Both series display the trademark of both writers, which is arguably a state of whimsy and scale one step removed from reality. We see this in Finlay’s hallucinations, and in Casanova and Henriette dancing through eternity, on the streets of Venice. Ultimately, both are – in very different ways – pieces of cheeky, modern TV.
Aldridge, Mark & Andy Murray. T is for Television: The Small Screen Adventures of Russell T Davies. London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2008. Print.
Davies, Russell T. and Benjamin Cook. The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter. London: BBC Books, 2010. Print.
Potter, Dennis. Potter on Potter. Ed. Graham Fuller. London: Faber & Faber, 1993. Print.