Chris Powling talks to Vivien Alcock about the TV adaptation of her novel, The Cuckoo Sister, and to Paul Stone, the man behind it.
The television version of a book is ‘never completely as one expects,’ says Vivien Alcock. She should know – two of her novels, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer and Travellers By Night, have already been turned into series for the small screen. Now comes The Cuckoo Sister due for transmission in four episodes this Autumn. Currently, parts 1 and 2 are at the stage of fine-editing with 3 and 4 still as a rough-cut so as yet she can only guess at the degree of unexpectedness in store for her. ‘It’s bound to be different, though,’ she says cheerfully, ‘because they’re such different media.’
Also, she admits, of all her novels The Cuckoo Sister is perhaps the least obvious candidate for dramatisation. The book’s title refers to a street-wise teenager who is dumped, quite literally, on a Hampstead doorstep. Is she, or is she not, the elder sister kidnapped before Kate, her first-person narrator, was born? From this follow clashes of personality, culture and generation but with Vivien Alcock focusing squarely on Kate ‘with whom I very much identified as a sort of variant of the prodigal son’s brother … I was interested in the way she interpreted and coped with this experience.’ The Cuckoo Sister, in fact, is a deft psychological thriller – the reader is carried along not by what happens but by Kate’s feelings about what happens.
All of which, on the face of it, bodes ill for a television version. As Vivien Alcock herself is well aware ‘a book is obviously much more internal. The novelist can say exactly what her characters are thinking. Television has to show it by the actor’s expression. Also television scenes are much shorter – a novel can sustain much longer scenes.’ How, then, can she be so blithe about this project?
Her answer, of course, is to refer to the team making the transfer. What author wouldn’t be thrilled with an adaptation directed by Maralyn Fox and produced by Paul Stone? Who could possibly do it better? Especially reassuring was Julia Jones’s script which Vivien Alcock ‘was very pleased with – particularly the notion of using voice-over for Kate’s reflections which very much follow the prose of the book. Actually, two aspects of the book seem to me to gain from television: the collision of cultures between the two girls and the cuckoo sister’s affection for her supposed mother.’ Her only serious objection was to the suggestion that the series be extended to six episodes in order to make the cuckoo sister’s mother more prominent. ‘I didn’t want this. I wanted her to remain a shadowy figure off-stage.’ The objection was sustained.
Paul Stone’s own response to the book seems to confirm Vivien Alcock’s confidence. ‘This is not an action-plot,’ he says. ‘It’s a drama of ideas and emotions seen through the changing relationship between a child who’s totally streetwise and a child who’s totally protected.’ It was this ‘marvellously subtle relationship’ which attracted him to the book in the first place. ‘The initial problem was how to get behind what Kate was thinking. We decided to use the device of voice-over so that we ended up, in a sense, with a triple-layered presentation of her-from the dialogue, from the voice-over and from the close-ups of her face.’ Of course, there had to be changes. ‘Our words tend to be slightly less literary, more naturalistic than Vivien’s and sometimes, though we retained the book’s basic format of a flashback, we altered the tenses in order to stress the immediacy, to make Kate’s viewpoint more here-and-now.’ Nevertheless, his main concern was to be true to what he calls the ‘mental progression’ of the book. This was even more vital than getting the setting right which involved taking over an actual house in Hampstead and shooting scenes in East London, and at the zoo, which were as close as possible to those depicted in the novel. A genuine respect for his source is what’s made Paul Stone our foremost adapter of children’s books. ‘Children’s Drama has grown out of children’s novels,’ he points out. ‘The quality of television drama for children has been squarely based on the quality of writers of children’s books – who, in my view, are every bit as good as adult writers.’
Few readers of Books for Keeps will disagree with that. So, in the case of The Cuckoo Sister, can the box match the book? Paul Stone concedes ‘it’s a bit of a risk.’ But one person who’s already convinced the risk is worth taking is Vivien Alcock and she’s not just thinking of her sales figures. ‘A book should arouse the reader’s imagination more,’ she says, ‘but television can be a more complete experience. I’m looking forward to the series very much.’