The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is 20 years old

I’ll just say that again: the BBC’s version of Pride & Prejudice, with its stately homes, never-ending balls, and Colin Firth emerging dripping from a lake, was first aired 20 years ago last weekend. Man, I feel old. However, my attempts to explain this devastating sense of impending mortality was met with scant regard by my other half, who growled: “I remember the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in 1975. How do you think that makes me feel?” Yes, I say (not out loud – I’m not that daft), but that’s history. The BBC’s Pride & Prejudice is contemporary popular culture. It’s not allowed to be 20 years old.

Except it is.

I was 14 when the programme was first aired, just starting the first year of G.C.S.E.s and, rather excitingly, moving between a caravan and a B&B as we waited for overdue building work to be completed on our new house. It was a period of transition, in more ways than one. At the time, I was more interested in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which was airing on UK terrestrial TV for the first time (still only four channels, folks). In the end, I only watched the first season of DS9, deciding that a team of misfits boldly staying in one place wasn’t going to float my boat.

I didn’t actually watch Pride & Prejudice from the beginning, despite the near-constant trailers neatly encapsulating the set-up in one sentence: “Ah Lizzy, you’ll never be as pretty as your sister Jane, but I will say you look very well indeed” (and yes, sadly, that is quoted from memory). I remember Terry Wogan giving a weekly update on his morning breakfast radio show, bemoaning how no-one did anything except go to balls. Which, to be fair, pretty much summed up the first couple of episodes. I started watching properly from about half way through the series – fairly sure it was Ep.4, which is the point where EVERYTHING starts clicking into place. From there on in I was hooked, and saw the final episode once we had moved into our new house, with no other furniture except a TV and a set of plastic garden chairs.

It’s difficult to say exactly what makes this series (in my view) the definitive adaptation of Austen’s novel. The mid-90s saw a glut of Austen adaptations, from the slightly grungy, down-at-heel Persuasion (starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds), to the competing Emmas of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, and the classy, Oscar-winning Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The popularity and, indeed, ubiquity of these adaptations showed that there was both a market and an audience for all things Austen. At six hours’ duration, Pride & Prejudice sat at the apex of this trend. The long form TV format allowed the story to develop at a leisurely pace that nevertheless packed in a substantial amount of character and plot.  The self-contained episodes were tightly scripted and directed with a lightness of touch that was never frivolous. Casting-wise, the production lucked-out in every single performance. You can even gloss over Julia Sawalha pretending to be a 15-year old. Both Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth grounded their characters and relationship with a realism that can sometimes be lost amongst the over-enunciated gentility of the English costume drama.

Looking at the competition, the 1995 version beats the others hands down. 1940 saw Laurence Olivier as Darcy team up with Greer Garson as Elizabeth, in a light piece of Hollywood romantic fluff that ruined the story completely by having Lady Catherine de Bourgh turn out to be a charming old duffer who was just testing Lizzy really, and welcomed her into the family with open arms. That’s almost like  Ernst Stavro Blofeld popping up one day and going “ONLY JOKING!”, while offering a plate of stuffed piranhas as a wedding present.

I must admit to not having seen the earlier 1979 BBC adaptation with David Rintoul as Darcy and Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth. But the ten minutes I did try, when in the throes of P&P fandom, seemed stilted and dry, and would no doubt require perseverance. By the by, as I looked this up on IMDB to find the date of release, I discovered that there was a 1952 mini-series with Peter Cushing as Darcy and Prunella Scales as Lydia Bennett. Now that would be worth digging out from somewhere (in a similar vein, there’s a 1966 Three Musketeers with Jeremy Brett as D’Artagnan, and Brian Blessed as Porthos, which has got to be worth a look).

Which brings us to the most recent, 2005 adaptation starring Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth. Contrary to many detractors, I think the latter is excellent – she embodies the character’s spirit and intelligence, and her performance is one of the few plus points in an otherwise abysmal production. Case in point:  the Bennett family are poor relative to their social status; that doesn’t mean they have pigs trundling through the kitchen at any given opportunity. And much as I love Donald Sutherland, he cannot do an English accent to save his life. I think he knows it too, so spends most of the film slurring and mumbling, and trying to pass it off as eccentricity. Doesn’t work. As for Matthew Macfadyen, he was much better suited to the (unfairly maligned) Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, plaintively shouting “I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham!” dressed in just his breeches. The stoic, taciturn Darcy couldn’t be further removed.

So, despite being 20 years old, the 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice remains the pinnacle. To mark the occasion, I plan to re-watch the series in the spirit of the original – i.e. every Sunday night for six weeks – trying to avoid the temptation of a Netflix binge. It will be a pleasure.

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