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1996 - The Darker Side Of Period Drama.

Author: James Rampton.
Publication: TV Eye.

"I'm playing an upper-class twat, a real silly git," laughs Rupert Graves. "It's type-casting."Graves is appearing in the forthcoming film of Alan Ayckbourn's Revengers' Comedies.

That is certainly an image he has had to live with since languidly strolling into the public consciousness as Freddy Honeychurch in A Room With a View.

"If I was called Wayne Graves, I'd never have gotten that part," he reckons. "There's a certain snobbery in British film-making." He's subsequently appeared in so many period dramas, he could amost have been sponsored by Laura Ashley.

The idea of an actor most at home in sideburns and stiff collars will not be dislodged by his latest role. He plays the aristocratic alcoholic, Arthur Huntington, violent husband of the long-suffering Helen (Tara Fitzgerald), in the BBC's new adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.

Dressed in a leather flying-jacket when we meet, Graves has the timeless good looks of a WWI fighter pilot. This has led him to be bracketed with Hugh Grant as what one newspaper woman called "thinking woman's crumpet on toast," but he is dismissive of the sex symbol tag. "What does that mean?" he asks. "I've seen so much rubbish written about me that there's no point in taking it seriously."

But there is much more to this thirty-something actor than an ability to look dashing in riding boots and tight breeches. He made a convincing job of David Martin - violent bank robber by day, sensuous transvestite by night - in ITV's Open Fire and is soon to be seen as a man falling for a transsexual in a contemporary BBC drama called Different for Girls.

Graves remains well aware of the dangers of white-linen-suit typecasting. "I always have that debate when I'm offered a period drama," he maintains. "I think, 'Oh no, not another fey public school boy.' But deep down, I know I'm not like that. I went to a crappy comprehensive in Weston-Super-Mare."

He voices his wariness about cut-glass acting. "There can be too much linen and old leaves in English acting." But Graves contends that drama set in previous eras can still have a resonance across the centuries. "If they trade on whimsy, then the charge of irrelevance can be made," he observes.

"But period dramas like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are relevant if you choose to look for the human themes. The Tenant is quite primal; male weaknesses are fighting against female strengths. It makes for a good battle, which they take out on their child. That's a human story."

With its harrowing account of marital abuse, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines. James Purefoy, who plays Helen's landlord, asserts: "It's so modern. The problem of alcoholism and the home-breaking, and the violence it causes, are as relevant today as they were then. The sort of abuse that Anne Bronte shocked everyone with was happening at the time and is still happening now."

It is all far-removed from the bonnets and bonhomie of Pride and Prejudice. "We wanted to make The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a compelling story about real people who happen to live in the 1840s," explains Suzan Harrison, the producer.

"The characters don't hide behind period masks. There are no wigs, they wear very little make-up, and their clothes actually get dirty. I am very keen that people realise that this is not another Pride and Prejudice. It's a much bleaker, blacker, more real piece.

And Graves, for one, feels a lot more comfortable in a smudged linen suit.

©1996 TV Eye.