Looking Back At JANE EYRE (1983 BBC Adaptation) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At JANE EYRE (1983 BBC Adaptation)

Tony visits the mad woman in the attic.
Jane Eyre is a book whose reputation goes ahead of it.

It’s part of a Bronte showdown that serves as a personality test. There are people who love Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, for its brooding passion, and its story of love denied and turning sour, spreading bitterness and pain through several generations. And then there are people who love Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, for the impeccable, fundamental GOODNESS of the heroine, speaking her truth from childhood into adulthood and finally winning her brooding, passionate man by the simple but stand-up honesty of her caring nature.

Certainly, there are people who straddle the Bronte divide. We call those people “Psychopaths.”

With Jane Eyre, there’s more external plot than there is in Wuthering Heights, and there are certain things you need to get right if you’re going to knock a TV rendering of Jane Eyre out of the park.

Firstly, of course, you need a Jane (or actually, two Janes – Young Jane and Grown-Up Jane) who can deliver the honesty and the occasional lecturing of the character in the novel without making her either a priggish miss or, as the story develops, a tediously suffering martyr.

You also need to nail the character of Mr Rochester, Jane’s eventual object of adoration. He’s one of those classic standoffish, haughty men that 19th century novelists saw as the practically perfect older men for their impressionable heroines. But Rochester in particular is a man with a past, a man with secrets, and a man who doesn’t believe he deserves happiness. He has a mercurial nature, snappy but incisive, and once he’s unlocked, he can even have a twinkle and a sense of play, but only when he's entirely in control or entirely comfortable. You need to get that combination spot on, or – because of all his mercurial moods, and the secret in his attic, it feels unbelievable that someone as fundamentally good as Jane Eyre would ever come to love him.

And then, studded throughout the story, you need to ensure the quality of your villains. There are… SO many villains (for which, read “People who are mean to Jane Eyre”), it’s quite enough to turn your head, from her initial ‘benefactress,’ Mrs Reed, who makes her feel like a poor relation (NB – she IS a poor relation, but let’s not be delayed by facts), her obnoxious son John, who’s a bad lot from an early age and likes to hit girls, to Mr Brocklehurst, the school owner with a harsh line in Hellfire to sell to the very young, to Miss Scratcherd, the kind of teacher who delights in cruelty for its own sake, all the way through to Miss Blanche Ingram, who, while to all intents and purposes is just an eligible young lady on the marriage market, manages to get herself into Jane Eyre’s bad books both by a) being a woman who isn’t Jane Eyre and charming Mr Rochester, and b) looking firmly down her nose at people that she (and, in all fairness, the rest of their society) believes to be her social inferiors.

And finally, you have to make the mystery of what’s happening in Mr Rochester’s attic compelling, and when it’s revealed, you have to let it hit with full force because – without spoilering people who’ve neither seen it nor read it, the events in the attic have a huge impact on the eventual destiny of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester.

So – just a few things to achieve, then.

The 1983 BBC dramatization of Jane Eyre, before it met any of those goals, took a bold decision. Where many of the most successful adaptations of classic novels were broken down into four or six hour-long episodes, allowing the drama to ripen and stay with an audience for a whole week, and cover a fair amount of ground over the course of each episode, Jane Eyre was instead delivered in no fewer than 11 half-hours.

Does that work? It does because of the nature of the story. It would probably work with the likes of David Copperfield, too – another story that includes distinct phases of the lead character’s life, and which features that lead character as first-person narrator alongside the vivid playing-out of scenes.

But a half-hour episode means you can fit maybe five or six scenes into most episodes and have to rely on them to represent the tone and flow of a whole section of the book.

In Jane Eyre, there’s an episode of Jane as a child getting into trouble with her cousins, the Reeds, being punished by Mrs Reed, falling ill, and being sent away permanently to school – and that’s all you have to mark that part of her life. When she’s sent to Mr Brocklehurst’s school, the episode includes her exceptional progress with lessons, the blackening of her character by Brocklehurst, the restitution of her good character by the kindly Miss Temple, the beginnings of her friendship with another charity case, Helen Burns, and Helen’s sickness and death.

The next episode opens with Jane having been at the school for several years and graduated to a teaching position, following her as she moves to Thornfield, Mr Rochester’s house as governess to the young French girl, Adele…

And so on. This choppy method of telling the story absolutely moves the drama along at a pace to which the original novel never aspires, but you do lose out on quite a bit of the texture of the original, too.

In particular, Jane’s friendship with Helen is highly moving in the book, with the young Jane seeming to mellow from a foot-stamping mouth-on-legs child to a genuinely caring individual through emulation of Helen’s example. She even risks contracting Typhus herself by visiting Helen in her sickbed even as the end nears, so determined is she that her friend should not be lonely or melancholy as she approaches her inevitable death.

See? In the book, a moving sequence of genuine character development for Jane. In the 1983 dramatization, limited by time as it was, it’s very much more “Here’s Helen, she was kind to me. Now she’s dying. Now she’s dead.” Annnnd end credits, robbing Helen (Colette Barker) of the chance for a more important role and a bigger impact on the young Jane (Sian Pattenden).

A more understandable but still important cut is the loss of not one but two other governess positions once Jane leaves Brocklehurst’s school before she comes to Thornfield. While in the book, these two other assignments are important as testing grounds for the young governess, and each stretches and moulds her character in different ways, it makes sense in the 1983 adaptation to cut them, because you’d have to spend an episode on each, and frankly, viewers would be demanding you get to the meat of Jane and Rochester – so the TV adaptation does just that.

So, with all that said, does the 1983 BBC version of Jane Eyre hit the dramatic targets we’ve set for it?

Well, in terms of a well-balanced Jane, yes and no. Young Jane (Sian Pattenden) is as outspoken as she needs to be, while also endearing herself to bibliophiles everywhere by her habit, at the slightest provocation, of finding a window seat and a book, drawing the curtains to separate herself from the world, and settling down for a long, luxurious read.

She’s pert, absolutely, when answering back to adults, and Pattenden’s Young Jane is an agreeably hellcat creature who makes us root for her.

Zelah Clarke as the Grown-Up Jane gives us a Jane Eyre who’s relatively well-balanced – her voice is usually kept low to emphasise her soundness of character. Does she sometimes come across as that suffering martyr? Absolutely, but then, so does Jane in the book – it’s a consequence of being both ultimately good and, in all honesty, of being the “author” of her own story, and therefore rationalizing her vanities as modes of moral character. Above all, is she believable? Absolutely – while delivering the rarely frivolous or fun governess as a character who’s easy to admire but relatively difficult to fully like.

Mr Rochester? This is where the 1983 production knocks its casting into the stratosphere, bringing in a young Timothy Dalton. He’s absurdly perfect, delivering that mercurial snappiness and broadcasting “I’m a man with a dark secret” in every turn of his ski-slope cheekbones. If his Mr Rochester is somewhat incongruously Welsh on a few occasions, it’s usually a slip that helps deliver the darkness of the character. Essentially, Timothy Dalton’s Mr Rochester probably hasn’t been – and probably won’t ever be beaten on screen. Timothy Dalton is pretty much Peak Rochester, and if several of the 11 episodes are given over to watching him chew the scenery, frankly, sit tight, because watching a young and hungry Timothy Dalton chew scenery is probably the most personally rewarding thing you’ll do on any given day.

The parade of villains is superb in the 1983 Jane Eyre, too, from Judy Cornwell as Mrs Reed all the way up through the story. A surprisingly powerful performance from a young Alan Cox as John Reed in just the first episode persuades you of the kind of man he will (and does) become, albeit he grows up entirely off-screen beyond that first episode. Robert James is masterly as Brocklehurst, summoning up the brittle, hypocritical morality of the Hellfire Police with a spectacularly reined-in performance. And Blanche Ingram, played by Mary Tamm (probably more famous as the first Romana in Doctor Who), balances her accomplishments, ambitions, weariness with people who bore her and contempt for those beneath her in social standing, so as to lend some veracity to Jane Eyre’s assessment of her as not being worthy of Mr Rochester’s interest.

As for the drama of the attic, it’s very effectively done, from a creepy off-screen laugh that seems to follow Jane about, to the uneasiness of the staff, to the action scenes, including physical assault and an attempt to burn the house down. The fiction that keeps Jane in innocence of what’s really going on may be thin, but the growing gratitude and even affection that Rochester has for her after she saves his life in the case of attempted arson is touching and deeply rendered by screenwriter Alexander Baron and director Julian Amyes.

Ultimately, to deliver the Jane Eyre-Rochester relationship properly, you’re looking for a couple of performances that can take a 50 Shades Of Grey power dynamic, strip it of its icky, rapey vibe, and make you believe in the dark, brooding passion of the man, and the innocent, forthright, but always honest-as-she-sees-it interest of the woman. And in the saturnine look and quicksilver performance of Timothy Dalton’s Rochester, and the pale, low-voiced, sometimes squirmingly wretched, other times engagingly vocal version of Jane Eyre by Zelah Clare, the 1983 adaptation delivers an odd, appealing, anything but straightforward chemistry that absolutely works in the context of Charlotte Bronte’s story.

The best version of Jane Eyre yet committed to screen? Yes, on balance.

The sacrifices forced upon the storytelling by the half-hour episode format hurt its claim to that title, certainly, and a version which more fully showed Jane’s development as a character would betechnically better, but the blistering central performances by Clarke and Dalton, and a star-studded and superb rogue’s gallery, do more than enough to balance the scales and let the 1983 dramatization stand and own its laurels.

Check out the 1983 Jane Eyre today and immerse yourself in a semi-gothic mystery with a heroine who determines at all times to be as good as she can be.

Watch Jane Eyre 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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