The Mayor of Casterbridge: ’70s programming done right

In the summer, I was rummaging through a town hall jumble sale when I stumbled across a copy of the BBC’s 1978 adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I bought for a pound. Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel of the same title, the story charts the life of Michael Henchard, a farmhand who, when drunk, sells his wife and child to another man at a country fair. What follows is a story of one man’s desperation to move on from his past, keeping it secret and making a name for himself as the Mayor of Casterbridge, a rural and semi-fictionalised town in Dorsetshire. 

Both of my parents watched the series as it was broadcast from January to March 1978, and so rewatching it with me was a very nostalgic experience for them. It was lovely to get some use out of our DVD player, too, which is far less used now than it was in the era before Netflix, Disney+, and other widely used streaming platforms. 

The 1970s camera quality and lighting lend themselves to creating an authentic atmosphere in the show

The novel is rife with coincidence, overheard conversations, and miscommunications that result in direct confrontation—tropes that lend themselves well to a screenplay—and Potter’s adaptation takes its time with the source material. There is ample appreciation of the nuances of Hardy’s writing, devoting the 50 to 55-minute-long episode runtime to fleshing out his characters and their world in all their original detail. Back in the 1970s, there was no way to binge-watch an entire show on BBC iPlayer; people had to pace out the series and watch one episode per week. Similarly, readers in the 1880s had to wait each week for the next instalment of Hardy’s novel to be published. 

Furthermore, the 1970s camera quality and lighting lend themselves to creating an authentic atmosphere in the show. The BBC only began offering colour programming in 1968, and this lends itself to the authenticity of Potter’s adaptation. Scenes like Lucetta’s evening piano practice in her parlour, lit by candlelight, and the natural lighting of the outdoor scenes make the viewer feel as though they are right there in Casterbridge, soaking up the scandals and dramas of the town. Because it was the first BBC production to have been recorded on Outside Broadcast (OB) videotape, and the 70s technology meaning there was certainly no strobe lighting or CGI sunlight, we see Casterbridge in a similar light to how Hardy might have visualised it himself. 

Rather than watching it and considering it to have ‘aged badly’ because of old filming technology, I believe that the distinctly 1970s features of Potter’s adaptation lend it an essential charm. And the late Alan Bates’ phenomenal performance as Michael is the best part of all, and who can name a more quintessential 70s television star than him? 

The Mayor of Casterbridge has aged well, retaining its cultural value, and taking on a sense of timelessness despite being filmed 45 years ago

Watching some other 70s programmes as a casual first-time viewer in 2023 can definitely be an alienating experience. A 1970s comedy, for example, can offer potentially offensive humour that was more socially acceptable at the time. One example is Love Thy Neighbour (1972–1976), which, even during broadcast, was criticised for its bad handling of racism. Other 1970s British family programming often involved conforming, bland sitcoms such as Happy Ever After (1974–1979) or slapstick comedies like Dad’s Army (1968–1977), so switching on to a beautifully crafted production of a classic English novel must have been a real treat. Christine Rawlin’s costume design makes every episode a delight for the eyes—my favourite scene is in ‘Episode 2,’ where Farfrae, dressed in his traditional Scottish kilt, dances with Elizabeth-Jane, who wears golden ribbons in her hair. 

I remember when Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss released their version of Dracula (2020), based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. As Dracula is one of the most frequently adapted-for-screen texts out there, I had high hopes for an adaptation commissioned by the BBC, given their great track record, but I was disappointed by their extensive creative liberties. It felt like the programme had been inspired by Dracula’s pop culture imprint rather than by the book itself. 

The Mayor of Casterbridge has aged well, retaining its cultural value, and taking on a sense of timelessness despite being filmed 45 years ago. By looking back on 1970s television programming, we can see just how far this medium has progressed technologically. And yet, I think that, Potter’s production is far better than more recent literary adaptations have been, and that it is a testament to an authentic, accurate, and high-quality style of television adaptation that we will no longer see in 2023. 

Comments (1)

  • I have just rewatched the entire series and have enjoyed every minute. A lifelong fan of Alan Bates, he is truly magnificent in the role of Michael Henchard, which was one of his favourite roles in his career. The ending never fails to move me to tears, as Michael’s will and last wishes are read aloud . So bleak and desolate an end for a man who always wanted to do the right thing, but was thwarted by his pride and personal demons.

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