R F Delderfield (1912-1972) was a popular writer with a talent for telling epic, decade-spanning novels that are still in print today. He was decidedly mainstream, probably quite reactionary, but not without sensitivity. Many of his books were made into lengthy TV adaptations that ran for months on BBC TV in the late seventies/early eighties.
The most successful of these was To Serve Them All My Days, about a teacher from a working class background who returns shell-shocked from service in World War One and takes up a post at a public school in Devon. Several of Delderfield’s novels are set in the Westcountry and his affection for and appreciation for the region and its landscape runs through his work.
In 1983 Andrew Davies (now famous for his version of Pride and Prejudice) adapted Diana, which was a combination of two novels from the early sixties, There Was a Fair Maid Dwelling and The Unjust Skies.
It follows sixteen-year-old John Leigh who has returned from Brixton, London, to his mother’s birthplace in Devon. There he meets Diana, daughter of the wealthy family at the local manor. She proceeds to infatuate him through the 1930s, as he becomes a journalist and moves to London, and into World War Two and the French Resistance. Davies adopted a Brideshead-style voiceover as Leigh looks back on the story and it seems to be quite a cult guilty-pleasure these days with internet message boards anxious for a DVD release.
I remember watching this when I must have been about 12 – impressed by the Devonshire setting and moorland I could relate to, and the Dickens-ish Great Expectations aspects.
Diana and Jan (she renames him, with the confidence of her class, because John is ‘too dull’, but also because her favourite book is Lorna Doone) meet around the moorland which is covered in yellow gorse and purple heather. They call it ‘Sennacharib’, after Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold…
I’ve remembered these lines over the years, even today when the gorse comes out and smells of coconut, and the moors really are armoured in purple and gold. I’m not sure how well the books stand up today – it’s years since I read one – though at his best Delderfield has been compared to John Galsworthy.
There’s another scene in the TV series however which is all credit to Andrew Davies’ adaptation – it doesn’t appear in the book.
In the early days, Jan saves up to buy Diana a leather-bound edition of Lorna Doone. The bookshop he goes to is a bit special because the owner, Miss Westcott, is a fantastically no-nonsense, straightforward and genuine type (the like of which have faded away). It’s just a small role from character actress Mary Morris, but it’s a moment that I want to capture – because she loves books above all, because she is generous with her learning and kindness and most of all because of the way she says ‘Knowledge is power’.
In the first scene, Jan meets Diana’s old governess in the bookshop…
Later, Jan returns to collect the book and Miss Westcott explains why she is running an empty shop in a tiny Devonshire village…
I believe some of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Drewsteignton village (mentioned in this post here.)
I’ve included an interview with R F Delderfield’s daughter from 1983 below – click to view.