Cinderella on BBC One

An introduction to Cinderella, the second in BBC One’s anthology of four contemporary adaptations of classic fairy tales.

Actress Maxine Peake admits she was completely bowled over to be offered the role of Cindy Mellor, the put upon university cleaner in BBC One’s new adaptation of Cinderella: “If I was ever to appear in Cinderella, I always imagined myself as a Buttons, not the leading lady! In fact, when I auditioned it was for one of the ugly sisters but I didn’t hear anything and assumed I hadn’t got it.

“Then I bumped into James Nesbitt, who I’d never met before, and he came over to me and said ‘I heard you’re playing Cinderella’. I said I wouldn’t say anything but got straight on the phone to my agent begging them to find out! The next day they rang back and told me I’d got the job.

“And it was a great change to play the leading lady, but that’s what’s nice about doing this job. You get such variety. I was a big fan of the Shakespeare Retold series and Canterbury Tales, so I thought if they’re mad enough to cast me as Cinderella I’m not going to turn it down!

This fresh take on the classic tale is a comic and light-hearted one, but that’s not to say that the writing team didn’t take their responsibilities seriously.

Co-writer Richard Pinto explains: “Cinderella’s story addresses all the big fairy tale issues: oppression, injustice, and empowerment – and getting dressed up in a fabulous outfit, obviously! Many would argue that it’s the most famous of all fairy tales, so it was a daunting task to take something so well known and tell it in a new way, but we hope we’ve stayed true to the original spirit of the story.

“Fairy tales help us to confront our deepest fears. Cinderella deals with parental rejection and sibling rivalry, two issues that all of us as children are concerned about. All fairy tales also deal with injustice, or good triumphing over evil. This is comforting for small children, who might see the whole world as a place full of injustice – they’re constantly being told what to do by people who are bigger than they are! But as we get older, they come to mean different things.

“From an adult perspective, Cinderella can be seen as either a story about a girl who is forced to conform to male expectations of her (dressing up in a pretty dress to win her man), or as a story about a girl who is determined to get to the top and will use whatever methods she can to make it happen. We’ve taken something from each of these ‘alternative Cinderellas’.”

Before putting pen to paper, both writers read the various versions of the Cinderella story from around the world. Richard explains:

“Every country has its own version, ranging from the old Egyptian story of Rhodope through to Perrault and the brothers Grimm. To understand what’s really going on in fairy tales, to get to the root of the primal urges they describe, you have to revisit them all – from Hansel and Gretel to Rumpelstiltskin and back again.

Fellow co-writer Anil Gupta continues: “We also looked at the archaeological and anthropological debate surrounding the Great Leap Forward, a contentious period in human evolution when our ancestors suddenly became the dominant species on Earth.

“Basically we still don’t know why humans made it and Neanderthals didn’t, but we think it’s either down to the feminine skills of language and communication, or the masculine skills of speed and agility. Basically the answer to this question is the ultimate answer to the battle of the sexes – who’s best, men or women? This provides the bone of contention (bad pun, I know) between our two protagonists.”

It is upon a pre-historic stone artefact, a phallus from the Aurignacian Culture, which were apparently objects of worship in early human society, that the fictional Professor Prince has built his entire theory that the male of the species was the driving force of evolution.

Gupta continues: “In our version, Cindy is a cleaner at a university. She is deeply fascinated by anthropology, but she doesn’t have the qualifications to pursue her dream of becoming an academic. She’s kept in her place by two research students, Phoebe and Fenola (our Ugly Sisters), and the head of the anthropology department, Professor Brooks (the Wicked Stepmother).

“It looks like she’s destined for a life below stairs, until the arrival at the university of Professor HM Prince – a very modern academic, media savvy and photogenic – who’s desperate to show the world his phallus…”

Maxine agrees that it certainly isn’t a case of love at first sight for Cindy and the professor: “She thinks he’s an idiot, a bit pompous, a little like Good Will Hunting or Educating Rita. Prince is a man at the top of his game, adored by women and men alike, but you’ve got the sense that it’s not an easy arrogance although he’s beginning to believe his own hype.

“I think Cindy sees the person underneath; that it’s all a big façade, that he’s a really lovely guy and they have a lot in common even if they do come from the opposite end of the academic spectrum.

“Cindy’s not got any qualifications, as such, but she’s got passion and common sense. Much like me when it comes to anthropology. In fact I had trouble even saying paleoanthropology! Luckily the script wasn’t full of lots of jargon.”

Although there are some similarities with her on-screen character as Maxine admits: “I love cleaning. I have an addiction to bleach! It’s a joke amongst my friends but it’s how I relax; get a pair of Marigolds on.

“There were times on Shameless when I’d be desperate to get the dusters out and clean the set! And I’d love a fairy godmother. Perhaps I could ask her to find me a flat to buy at a reasonable price although I think I’ve left that a bit late!”

There is also part of Maxine who likes to get dressed up in the obligatory fairy tale dress: “It’s nice to dress up but really I’m a jeans person. I was a misguided tomboy.

“I didn’t climb trees but I was misadvised by somebody about how to attract the opposite sex – if you dress like them and hang around them then they’ll like you! I had lots of male friends who all thought I was great but romantically it was duff advice!”

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