Looking Back At PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995)

Tony’s going for a dip in the lake.
When people in the 21st century think of Pride And Prejudice, with the best will in the world, it’s unlikely that they think of the 2005 movie version.

That in itself is saying something, because the 2005 movie version starred Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, and Brenda Blethyn, was directed by Joe Wright and was adapted by the stunningly talented Deborah Moggach, with extra dialogue along the way by Emma Thompson.

With any other novel, that would be enough to make the 2005 movie version stand as the definitive version for generations.

It’s not enough with Pride And Prejudice.

Arguably, for at least a handful of generations, even the Jane Austen novel, the source of the story and the genetic template from which all future versions must be drawn… isn’t enough to be the definitive version of Pride And Prejudice.

It’s not enough because the 1995, six-part TV adaptation exists – and will probably exist alongside the novel for the rest of time.
Let’s settle one strand of the debate right here: YES, the novel by Austen is utterly brilliant, so long as you GET Jane Austen and what she was about. If you don’t, it has an unfortunate tendency to read like a bunch of wannabe posh girls throwing themselves at a sequence of mostly ghastly men in the hope of securing a fortune.

If you understand the comedy and the satire of Jane Austen though, it is positively scathing, sharp, as full of potential grotesques as anything Dickens ever put on paper, and a story of people constrained by social convention and their own characteristics (most notably the pride and prejudice that form the title) into taking the long way round to the truth of their feelings. In its emotional content, it’s a very 21st century Young Adult novel, with an overlay of 18th century etiquette on top.

But you have to understand Jane Austen to get all that from the novel.

The genius of the six-part 1995 TV version is that it makes all of that crystal clear. It gives you the KEY to crack Jane Austen’s story and her intention, so you end up with a version of Pride And Prejudice that absolutely sings with clarity, character, and cause and effect.

It puts the pride and the prejudice of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet entirely on display, along with the frivolity of Lydia Bennet, the wickedness of George Wickham, the histrionic preoccupation of Mrs Bennet, the self-revolving retreat from reality of Mr Bennet, the sheer positivity of Mr Bingley, the patient kindness of Jane Bennet, and the oleaginous awfulness of Mr Collins.

For that to happen, you need more than Jane Austen.

You need Jane Austen to provide the fundamental canvas and the characters, the understanding of societal rules and the way in which people moved in the society the novel describes.

But you need at least two more geniuses before you even start your cameras rolling.

You need Andrew Davies, writer and adapter extraordinaire, at the helm. Davies had written plays for Broadway that drew the likes of Glenda Jackson and Jessica Tandy. He was the directing spirit behind the TV adaptation of To Serve Them All My Days, by RF Delderfield. He was the writer of A Very Peculiar Practice and co-writer of the sitcom Game On. In 1990, he had taken a fairly dry, fairly ordinary political novel by Michael Dobbs – House Of Cards – and turned it into a political, Machiavellian masterpiece of television, strongly influencing Dobbs to write two sequels, which Davies also adapted, redefining Ian Richardson’s career in the process as he starred as the scheming politician, Francis Urquhart. Without Davies, there would never have been a US House of Cards series, either.

And then he turned his attention to the novel of sisters, scandals, and sourpusses that was Pride and Prejudice.

Essentially, if you’re looking for the force that unlocked Pride And Prejudice for whole generations (and inspired Helen Fielding to write the Bridget Jones books), the answer is simple. The answer is Andrew Davies.

After that, you’re looking for the person who filled those fictional bodies with the archetypes that still live in your mind.

If you remember Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, and the always phenomenal Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet (We’re betting you can hear the screech of her despair even as you read these words), and most, most, most of all, if you remember Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, you owe a debt of gratitude to producer Sue Birtwistle.
Birtwistle was particularly responsible for changing the world of literature – not to mention Colin Firth’s career – forever, because she insisted on him as her Mr Darcy. Firth himself wasn’t keen – either on Jane Austen as a whole, or on himself as a potential Mr Darcy. She also cast the rest of the actors, so beside Elizabeth’s pert attitude and Darcy’s snappy disdain, Birtwistle is responsible for putting Susannah Harker (who had earlier worked on Andrew Davies’ House of Cards adaptation) in the body of Jane Bennet. Putting Julia Sawalha of Press Gang and Absolutely Fabulous fame in the role of Lydia Bennet. The phenomenal David Bamber in the role of Mr Collins – and so on.

So far, we’re thanking three people for Pride And Prejudice 1995. Jane Austen herself, Andrew Davies, and Sue Birtwistle.

Beyond which, we have to simply watch and marvel as performance after performance is nailed not only to our minds and memories, but to the surface of our culture. Again, Colin Firth as Mr Darcy is ridiculously good – much, much better than he ever thought he would be. And of course, his performance in this Pride And Prejudice inspired Helen Fielding to write the Bridget Jones books, and to call her hero Mark Darcy. In a kind of meta-move, Firth returned to play Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones movies – in which Andrew Davies also had a hand.

Alison Steadman already had experience at nailing characters to the cultural zeitgeist after her performance as Beverly Moss in Abigail’s Party, but arguably, her Mrs Bennet far eclipses her Beverly, pushing her wails of ruin to the very edge of credibility and translating the words of Jane Austen into an enormously vivid and colourful character as it does so.
Elizabeth Bennet is probably one of the two hardest characters to cast in the piece, and Jennifer Ehle walks the line between being a likeable person and being as judgmental as the character needs to be if her story is to make sense. It’s an achievement for which, in some respects, Ehle’s career has not subsequently been adequately rewarded. That said, almost 30 years on, no-one has captured Elizabeth’s convoluted character more completely than she has – and that doesn’t look like it’s about to change any time soon.

Susannah Harker treads an almost equally fine line in the adaptation. Jane Bennet is difficult to cast, because she’s fundamentally good, through and through. Playing that without making her into a Mary Sue, an unbelievable cipher, is difficult – but Harker empties the modern world out of her performance and lets the simple goodness of Jane shine through – with just enough of a curl of humour in her smile to make her real, and human, and above all, likeable.

David Bamber’s performance is BEYOND extraordinary. In the modern world, wanting to boo, hiss and throw things at the screen has become an everyday occurrence – and that’s just watching the news. But in 1995, Bamber’s slimy Mr Collins left trails across the TV and provided the commonplace evil that overshadowed the Bennet family – a horrible man who would take their house out from under them with the full backing of the law.

In plotting terms, while it’s Mr Wickham who brings events to a crisis point that could ruin the Bennet sisters, he's understood to be an extraordinary devil.

Bamber’s Mr Collins turns Austen’s relatively abstract threat into a walking, bowing, scraping, overly dignified nightmare, so that when he throws his cap at Elizabeth Bennet, while she may be unduly prejudiced about some things, we’re absolutely right with her when it comes to her revulsion at Mr Collins. We too would do anything in our power to avoid being shackled to David Bamber’s version of Mr Collins.
The point is probably made. Austen’s original is a thing of power, comedy, satire and punch, but it needs a little unlocking for a modern audience.

Davies’ adaptation delivers that unlocking in spades, turning Austen’s characters into vivid, highly believable versions of the people in the novel, that clue us into what’s going on, and help the themes crystalise in our minds and memories.

Sue Birtwistle as producer is responsible for putting the right people in the right parts, and most of all, for indisputably casting the best ever Darcy.

And then, from the top of the cast list to the bottom, there are powerful, sensitive performances from all the cast. When something goes quietly click and all the planets align, what you get is often a once-in-a-generation production.

The 1995 Pride And Prejudice – and again, we say this with no disrespect – has already seen off a challenge by some great young actors in the 2005 movie version. In its perfection, in its absolute bingeworthiness, in the inspiration it gave to another writer to update the Wickham—Elizabeth-Darcy romantic triangle, and in – well, let’s just say it – in adding in the sequence of Darcy in the shirt and the lake – the 1995 Pride And Prejudice is the definitive version that goes BEYOND a once-in-a-generation achievement.

While we would never usually advocate watching a TV adaptation INSTEAD OF going to the source and reading the book, we might well be prepared to make an exception in this one important case. Once you’ve seen the 1995 Pride And Prejudice, you’ve seen a work of art perfected by intelligent adaptation, unbeatable casting, and performances that sing vividly in the brain nearly 30 years after their initial broadcast.

That’s a very special thing, and Pride And Prejudice remains worth your time to binge it today – just as it will be worth it 50 years from now.

Watch Pride And Prejudice today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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