Masterpiece’s ‘Tom Jones’ updates classic romp for unfamiliar audiences

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Courtesy of Mammoth Screen and Masterpiece

Sophie Wilde as Sophia Western and Solly McLeod as Tom Jones.

Even the actor starring in Tom Jones was unclear on the concept.

Solly McLeod was concerned about mastering a Welsh accent. He also knew he looked nothing like the soulful, hip-thrusting singer.

Not to worry, though. This project was about the other Tom Jones, the rake invented by English novelist Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

“I didn’t even know it existed,” McLeod said. “I didn’t know the story. I didn’t know the film.”

McLeod, best known for playing Ser Joffrey Lonmouth on House of the Dragon, had just watched the film on a flight from London to Los Angeles. McLeod joined castmates and series’ executives in Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association tour in January.

Solly McLeod of "Tom Jones"
Solly McLeod at the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour Jan. 17. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

“Our Tom is a lot more innocent and naive, and he’s kind of led astray a little bit more, whereas Albert Finney’s Tom had a feeling you knew what he was doing when he was getting involved in the situations he did,” McLeod said.

The PBS version differs, with Masterpiece putting its spin on the story in a sexy — but not too sexy — romp spread over four Sundays, beginning April 30.

Masterpiece EP Susanne Simpson said, “It’s a 60-year difference between the Albert Finney movie and what we have today. …. There’s a certain audience that knows that movie, but a younger audience hasn’t really seen that film. So what we’re hoping is that we’re bringing a whole new generation, a whole new audience, to see this version of Tom Jones.”

The ‘naughty company’ of ‘Tom Jones’

Shot in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the PBS version hews to the original book. A newborn is left at the home of a kind squire. The boy, a bit of a rascal, grows up to be an ethical and sweet young man most women cannot resist.

The miniseries called upon McLeod, who was 21 during the shooting last year, to participate nervously  in a number of sex scenes. “I took it upon myself to make it fun — being in nude bicycle shorts and having a sponge attached in front to avoid any clashing of sorts,” he said.

Among the women who seduce him — though it does not take much convincing — is Hannah Waddingham as Lady Bellaston. Imperious and lascivious, the character is a far cry from her Rebecca Welton on Ted Lasso.

Hannah Waddingham as Lady Bellaston. (Photo © Steffan Hill 2021)

Waddingham, who was filming in Australia and could not attend the Television Critics Association January tour with her co-stars, sent a taped message displayed on screens: “I hope you have the best time with Solly, the gorgeous Solly, and the rest of the very, very naughty company of Tom Jones.”

She described her randy character as “a little cheeky minx.”

Rich and a libertine, like most other women in the show, she falls for Tom. His heart, though, belongs to her niece, Sophia Western, played by Sophie Wilde.

The four-hour adaptation honors the 1749 book yet shows it through a modern lens. Credit writer Gwyneth Hughes, a journalist turned screenwriter whose limited series include Vanity Fair and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In this version, Sophia is Black, the granddaughter of a man whose son had been stationed in Jamaica. When the son dies, Sophia is sent to her grandfather, who loves and raises her. Childhood friends — their guardians live near each other — Sophia and Tom fall in love as young adults. That she’s rich and he’s poor is far more of an issue among the gentry than their races.

“Having a diverse cast is really important to everybody,” Hughes said. “It’s a huge thing at the moment, and we could have just done it, especially because it’s a romantic comedy. But I wanted it to be properly historical, which is why we go for this back story, which I researched a lot. I’m a historian by academic background.”

She explains that no white European women lived in Jamaica when the story was set. “All the men, the slave owners, had relationships with the slaves,” she said. “And some of those relationships produced children.”

Hughes found evidence of a man with mixed-race children who were sent to England for school, and the production conferred with a historical consultant. Sophia, then, could credibly have been an heiress to her grandfather’s fortune.

A pandemic antidote

Like most women of her time, Sophia’s fate was decided for her. Her grandfather decides she’s to marry a hateful man, William, who has long been jealous of Tom. In love with Tom, Sophia runs away to avoid being married off to this nasty creature.

Everyone wants to make Sophia something she’s not. Lady Bellaston insists on dressing her in the high fashion of the day and tries to marry her off to a silly man, mainly so she can keep Tom for herself. Sophia’s grandfather refuses to relent and continues to conspire with William, who can’t wait to smother her spirit. But Tom loves her for who she is.

“I think what’s so beautiful about Gwyneth’s adaptation is it very much feels like a coming-of-age story in a lot of ways,” Wilde said. “And you see this beautiful, naive kind of girl really come into her womanhood, and you see that she is a fighter, and she strives for her kind of autonomy despite the social mores of the time. That was something that really appealed to me.”

At its heart, Tom Jones is a rom-com, but one that takes a hard look at class, sex, and sexism. It’s a wonderful yarn, but not many people make their way through it; it’s a tome.

“I planned to read it and bought a very nice copy, and I got however many pages in, and I could not grasp it — it is heavy,” McLeod said.

Hughes, who wound up reading it four times while working on Fielding’s very funny and very long book, acknowledges that she wasn’t as daunted as some would be when she set out to adapt one of the great early English novels.

“I just came in [thinking], ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get my hands on this,’ because I didn’t have any residual kind of fear of it from reading as a student — because I hadn’t,” Hughes said. “And I just thought, this is so much more than I was expecting, and [there’s] so much sunshine here, so much to cheer us all up in the dark days after COVID.”

“Masterpiece” EP Susanne Simpson at the Winter TCA Press Tour Jan. 17. (Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

Masterpiece’s Simpson saw the screenplay during the pandemic and considered it a perfect escape from those dark days. Mammoth Screen, a U.K.-based production company that had partnered with Masterpiece on Endeavour and World on Fire, approached Simpson with the script. Tom Jones represented a change, with Masterpiece commissioning the work before a U.K. broadcaster was involved.

“I felt that confident that I took a slightly bigger financial risk, because it’s important for us to have costume dramas for our audience,” Simpson said. “And I thought this one would be just right.”

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