I did see the hugely popular Andrew Davies version of Pride and Prejudice when it was first shown. But, as my younger child was only one then, and I was constantly rushing in and out of the room, my memories of it are something of a blur – a mix of beautiful costumes and landscapes, dancing, sunlight and Colin Firth taking that famous dip in the lake.
I think I also saw a repeat a few years later, but that has faded in my mind too. Watching the series again 14 years on, thanks to the beautifully-presented BBC Anniversary Edition box set, I’m hoping to take it all in better. So far, I’ve watched the first two episodes and thoroughly enjoyed them. Andrew Davies’ dialogue keeps a lot of Austen’s wit, and, after watching several rushed 90-minute adaptations of classics recently, the more leisurely pace of this one comes as a welcome change. It’s a pity Davies didn’t do as many episodes in his recent version of Sense and Sensibility – though that adaptation has grown on me.
Davies is always in the headlines, with millions of viewers (including me) looking forward to his next adaptation, but I must admit I don’t know much about the director of this version of P&P, Simon Langton. I see from the imdb that he has a long list of TV credits, including episodes of acclaimed costume dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street, so I’ll be interested to see if there is more about his contribution in the “making of” featurette on the DVD set.
Watching these first two episodes again, various things struck me. One was how beautifully Carl Davis’ music sets the mood. Another was that Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth seems quite happy and self-possessed in these opening scenes, despite all the annoyances around her as her family squabbles – it strikes me Austen was very good at showing teenagers squabbling, which comes up again with Fanny’s two sisters arguing over a knife in Mansfield Park.
By contrast, Colin Firth as Mr Darcy seems not only withdrawn/aloof, but downright unhappy. I noticed Andrew Davies brought out the melancholy side of Colonel Brandon in his Sense and Sensibility, but was quite surprised to see Darcy seeming equally depressed – although, come to think of it, there are quite a few similarities between Darcy and Brandon in that they both have hidden sorrows or family worries which they are brooding over and can’t share with others.
Watching this adaptation, it also strikes me anew how much class consciousness there is in the initial reaction of Darcy to the Bennets and the whole social circle he meets in the country. When he complains that there is no one worth dancing with at that first dance, and when he haughtily cuts Mr Collins dead, it’s all too easy to see that he is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s nephew. It isn’t just Elizabeth’s understanding of Darcy that changes later in the book and in this mini-series – his behaviour does change as well.
I find Alison Steadman rather over the top as Mrs Bennet in the first episode, although I think she settles down in the second one somewhat. However, Benjamin Whitrow seems just right as Mr Bennet – quiet but deadly, with so many barbed comments addressed to his family, which sound innocuous but leave a sting. I also like David Bamber as Mr Collins – he doesn’t ham it up, which must be a temptation with this part, but does bring out the character’s full ludicrous pomposity.
I’m looking forward to re-watching the rest of the series, and will no doubt have to read the book again afterwards.