Television: Tolstoy saves us from phony Downton

James Norton as Prince Andrei in War and Peace (BBC)

Holiday TV was a mixed bag. Doctor Who and Sherlock were interchangeable: the characters obnoxious, the direction epileptic. Downton Abbey ended as things never do in real life – happily. Mrs Bates, the cringeworthy servant girl, gave birth in her ladyship’s bedroom. As she held the newborn in her arms, I so wanted one of her employers to say: “We’ll give you some time alone. Just clean up the room when you feel ready.” Mrs Bates and Mr Bates have both been to prison. I hear they’ve already put their son’s name down for Dartmoor.

Thankfully, the BBC still knows how to translate classic literature. Aside from the thoroughly fun Dickensian, we also got started on its epic series War and Peace (Sundays, BBC One, 9pm) – adapted from a book so long that, like the Christmas turkey, we’ll still be digesting it come February.

The costumes and scenery are stunning, the music stirring. The acting is solid. Sometimes the dialogue feels a little bit like it’s been translated from the original Russian by Google. But who can blame screenwriter Andrew Davies when just cramming all that source material into something the average punter can enjoy is an artistic triumph in itself?

The key is good editing. The literary boffins say Davies has cut out the fat and left us with strong character portraits that capture the spirit of the novel. A novel I have never read. Well, I’ve never tried to climb Everest either, but I have a pretty good idea that I would die before I finished it.

Davies’s battle scenes are terrific, as is the sudden reduction of handsome heroes to quivering wrecks by shellfire. It’s immediately obvious that we’re in a different moral universe to Downton, which was largely about who would marry who. Marriage mattered in the age of Tolstoy, too, but the options were limited and the ambitions behind each match were rather tawdry. The beauty in War and Peace isn’t sublime. It’s deceptive. Beneath the surface lies blood and evil.