Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice BBC DVD set (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: February)

on February 27, 2013

So, here we are at the end of February and I’m ready to review my second Pride and Prejudice-inspired choice for the year.  A while (maybe as long as two years) ago, I spotted this DVD set online at a bargain price and decided to buy it, but I never got round to watching it.  This is the series made by the BBC and first broadcast on Sunday evenings in September and October 1995 as a 6 part series.  At the time of buying it I was under the impression that this edition was created and released for the 10th anniversary, but I don’t know where I got that from now as there’s no mention of it anywhere on the box and the copyright date is 2009, so I (or the online advertising) must have been mistaken.  That said, the set is classed as a “Special Edition” on the grounds that it features “frame by frame restoration from the original negative”.  There are also three extras in the form of featurettes, which, as they contain clips from the original, allow the effects of the restoration to be seen very clearly by the viewer.

My first observation concerns the plot summary on the back of the DVD case:

Elizabeth Bennett, a spirited and independent young woman, is the subject of her mother’s obsessive goal to marry off her five daughters to the wealthiest gentlemen available.  But Mrs Bennett’s plan is compromised with the arrival of the proud and enigmatic Mr Darcy, as he and Lizzie embark on one of the most famous and compelling romances in history.

In addition to the spelling mistakes and the rather confusing factual error (the idea that Darcy’s arrival might “compromise” Mrs Bennet’s plan surely implies that he is not one of the “wealthiest gentlemen available”), this sort of synopsis frustrates me, chiefly because that isn’t what the book is about.  The story concerns a series of unexpectedly connected events during a year in Lizzy’s life, during which she matures in all sorts of different ways and learns to be less hasty when forming opinions.  During this time she gets to know a man whom she eventually begins to love and respect enough to want to marry him.  In the meantime he, and some of the other characters in the novel, are also able to improve and develop their characters, especially when they see in some of the others what they might become if they don’t work to change themselves.  Now, obviously, that doesn’t really grab the potential viewer as a plot summary, but I hate to see any of Austen’s novels reduced to a mere love story.  They are always observational, didactic and entertaining – there’s nothing wrong with a simple love story but this is so much more complex and I feel that should be respected.  There are enough people in the world who believe that it’s all about Colin Firth Mr Darcy, without the BBC encouraging them.

The DVD set

I have to say that I was slightly disappointed with the lack of extras on this, as I thought a “Special Edition” should contain more and expected at least a commentary on some of the episodes.  However, the featurettes themselves were interesting.  The one on disc one, accompanying the first three episodes, was about how the series was adapted from the book and included interviews with Andrew Davies who adapted it, producer Sue Birtwistle and director Simon Langton, as well as the costume designer and the location manager/set designer (whose contributions I found fascinating, especially footage of the set team trying to decide how to arrange chairs in the sitting room at Longbourn!).  What made a real impression on me was Andrew Davies’ account of his desire to bring a physicality to the characters and make them more real and concrete in the minds of the audience.  His method of doing this seems to be to see them in states of undress as much as possible (Darcy in a bath, Lizzy and Jane frequently in nightwear, talking in the privacy of their bedrooms) but it also extends to scenes of action (various characters riding horses, the gentlemen shooting, Darcy fencing, lots of running – or “haste”, as Mrs Bennet might call it!) which help to show the characters as more than just figures in Regency costume exchanging witty repartee, as can be the danger in adaptations from books of this kind which are driven primarily by conversation.

The other two featurettes, on disc two, focus on the restoration of the film itself and on the lasting effect this adaptation has had on period drama adaptations.  The latter discusses how this series became “watercooler TV”, the most discussed feature of people’s weekend when they returned to work on Monday morning.  This was as unexpected as it was phenomenal – the series creators had expected to appeal to those with an interest in literature, mainly older people who had already read the book and were interested in seeing how it translated to screen, and instead they quickly found they had an audience of 10 million which spanned ages, genders and backgrounds.  Simon Langton calls the series “the Big Brother of its time” (and, as the film was made a few years ago now, we might well update that currently to the X Factor of its time), because of the impact it had on the population, the media (articles about the series and photos of the characters frequently popping up even in the first few pages of daily newspapers).  As I’ve mentioned before, I missed out on this spectacle by leaving the country early in September, so I never saw any of the attention it was attracting.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’ve never been able to “get” what it is about this adaptation that people love so much.  Perhaps you had to be there, surrounded by all the fascination and the attention and photos of Colin Firth (“who? Oh, the posh guy from Circle of Friends, I remember”), at that defining moment in TV history, to appreciate the obsession it generated.  I watched the video recording my dad had made for me (because I’d studied the book for ‘A’ Level) during my Christmas holiday, and reflected that it was a lot better than the version we’d watched at school (the 1980 series – just as a by the way, can you now picture this man playing Mr Darcy?!).  Whatever the reason (and I know I’m in a small minority here, so please try to accept my views and move on!) I just can’t seem to love it the way so many of my friends do.

The series itself

That said, this is probably my favourite “straight” adaptation of the novel (can’t help loving the twists on the original, like Lost in AustenBridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice).  The casting is almost flawless (my main reservation is over the choice of David Bamber as Mr Collins, who – whilst undeniably excellent and quite incredibly oily – is at least ten years too old) and a lot of attention to detail has gone into the scenes, the locations and the acting.  Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in particular can convey a huge amount with their facial expressions without ever needing to speak: one scene in particular comes to mind, in which Lizzy is visiting Pemberley and she and Georgiana are at the piano, whilst Darcy looks on from across the room.  His expression conveys a real sense of pleasure that his sister and the object of his affection are getting on so well together, and when Lizzy manages to distract the attention away from Caroline Bingley’s catty remark about Wickham he positively glows with approval.  In return her smile expresses her new-found respect and growing fondness for him.  The two other actors I found particularly pleasurable to watch are Crispin Bonham-Carter, as a hugely enthusiastic and completely adorable Mr Bingley, and Susannah Harker, elegantly serene as Jane.

I was pleased to find online a list of the locations used in this series, as these really added to its overall effect and I wanted to know more about them.  I hadn’t expected there to be so many! Most of the buildings used different places for the exterior and interior shots, such as Pemberley, whose grounds and exterior are those of Lyme Park in Cheshire but (some of) whose interiors are in Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire.  We visited Sudbury a few years ago whilst on holiday (I strongly recommend the Museum of Childhood), and was surprised to find that it had been filmed there as I hadn’t realised.  (I’m always very pleased when Chatsworth isn’t used as Pemberley since, although it’s said that Austen modelled her fictional estate on that real one, she also mentions that Lizzy and the Gardiners visit Chatsworth on their tour, which makes it feel slightly wrong if they then go to it as somewhere else!).  Belton House, which is used as Rosings, is very near my parents’ home and we used to visit there a lot when I was growing up*, so I was pleased to be reminded that both the interior and exterior make appearances.  I was interested in the use of Thorpe Tilney Hall (apparently nothing to do with Northanger Abbey!), as that is also fairly near my parents’ and I knew it had been used as Longbourn in the previous BBC adaptation, but couldn’t picture where it could be in this one.  However, further research into that has convinced me that it’s a mistake and wasn’t used.

A “newbie’s” response

Finally, I just wanted to record the responses of my daughters, who came to the series with no prior knowledge of the story or the characters at all.  I thought that the Bookworm would enjoy it but I offered both of them the chance to watch, as it was half term so I didn’t want the Butterfly to be left without entertainment.  She watched all but one episode but found them long and sometimes wanted them to hurry up and be over so we can do something else.  The Bookworm, on the other hand, was quite captivated by it and found it difficult to wait between the penultimate and final episodes (she only had to wait a day!).  It took her a while to “tune in” to the style of speech and language (she’s only 10 after all) and in the first couple of episodes we had to keep pausing to catch up on what they had said, and what it all meant.  But towards the end she was picking things up very quickly and also remembering other things the characters said which bore relevance to the subsequent plot.  She noticed, for example, that after Darcy has initially insulted Lizzy’s family (with very good reason, she acknowledged!) he then mentions on at least two occasions his respect for them – signs of his personal transformation, as well as his developing esteem of Lizzy.  She adored Mrs Bennet and her frequent outbursts, and could quite see how she had missed the point about Lydia’s disgrace by focusing mainly on the idea that Mr Bennet might be killed in a fight and then she would lose her home (and on Lydia’s need for new clothes).  Despite Southern Daddy’s persistent attempts to make it all about Darcy and Lizzy when he discussed it with her (there is still much work to be done with him), she picked up a good understanding of the story and hugely enjoyed watching with me.  I’m wondering what we can watch together next!

My next review will be of Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer, which is apparently the first “tribute” book written after this ground-breaking TV series was broadcast.

UPDATE: 1/3/13 – I’ve just discovered that  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is set to reach its final episode on 28th March, so I’m now considering making that my March selection and keeping Darcy’s Story for April.  I’ll see how it pans out!

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*It’s also the setting for a children’s novel – and subsequent TV series – called Moondial, by Helen Cresswell, which I’d strongly recommend if you get the opportunity to read/see it)

Thankful for…

A relaxing and refreshing half term holiday

A fun cake decorating lesson with a friend on Monday!

Good, supportive Bible study friends whom I saw today

Summer Holiday plans

A new doormat and runner in our front hall

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