'Pride': in the name of love
True romance is timeless in the new A&E miniseries "Pride and Prejudice," the latest adventure in the Jane Austen revival.
14 January 1996
Orange County Register
Copyright (c) 1996 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is rich, handsome and horribly haughty. Lizzy Bennet is church-mouse poor, porcelain pretty, and outrageously opinionated.
He wants her. She won't have him.
Together they're gasoline and matches. And when their hormones explode, they turn A&E's miniseries "Pride and Prejudice" into the fiercest romantic firestorm since Rhett Butler didn't give a damn about Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind."
"It's such a compulsive love story," English actress Jennifer Ehle said recently of "Pride and Prejudice" - both the six-hour A&E/BBC co-production in which she plays Lizzy and the serio-comic Jane Austen novel of 19th-century English courtship on which the miniseries is based. A long-time Austen addict, Ehle spoke from Warwickshire, England, where she was performing concurrently in three Royal Shakespeare Company plays - "Richard III," "The Relapse," and "The Painter of Dishonor."
"The verbal sparring matches between Darcy and Lizzy are so very erotic, I think because they're both so intelligent and they've finally met their match," Ehle said. "I've read the novel four times, and it does create this desperate urge for these two people to get together, because you never believe they really will.
"And another thing that made `Pride and Prejudice' so successful when it aired in England last fall is that Lizzy has attributes that women in the '90s think they've reclaimed. It's wonderful to see a 19th-century character who had the same independence, integrity and free-spiritedness."
As headstrong Elizabeth, who is affectionately called Lizzy by her eccentric father, Ehle helped start a new English craze for 19th-century corsets when "Pride and Prejudice" debuted in Britain.
As proper gentleman Darcy, smoldering with desire for Lizzy but repulsed by her lower-class family, Colin Firth became England's national heartthrob.
Together Darcy and Lizzy created a sensuality steamier than Sharon Stone and Billy Baldwin did in "Sliver", without shedding a single item of clothing but by merely gazing longingly across a room.
Improbably enough, the brightest star created by "Pride and Prejudice" is its author, 19th-century babe Jane Austen (1775-1817), already one of the hippest women of Anglo-American pop culture since the film adaptations of her novels "Sense and Sensibility" and "Persuasion" became sleeper hits. (A third film, the ultra-contemporary "Clueless," was loosely based on Austen's "Emma.")
"She's a genius - so sparkling and modern," "Pride and Prejudice" producer Sue Birtwistle said from London of Not-So-Plain Jane.
"`Pride and Prejudice' is a wonderful social commentary that poses all kinds of questions about how you want to live your life. It's about restraint, about whether you're prepared to compromise, about how you behave when society lays down rules and everyone knows how things are done."
Indeed, English rules of propriety are observed in seriously harsh ways in "Pride and Prejudice" - mostly because of what others might think. Darcy secretly derails his best friend Bingley's (Crispin Bonham-Carter) intended engagement to Lizzy's gentle sister Jane (Susannah Harker), after Lizzy's mother (Alison Steadman) and sister Lydia (Julia Sawalha) make raving fools of themselves at a social gathering. In Darcy's mind he was only sparing his friend, who would have dishonored himself - a matter of "Pride" - by marrying into such a vulgar family.
And Lizzy spurns Darcy at first because she trusts the slanders spoken against him by a not-so-gentlemanly gentleman, Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukis). That is Lizzy's prejudice.
And in reality Mrs. Bennet has very good cause for her unbecoming public hysteria. In the early 19th century only men could inherit property. Since the Bennets produced only daughters - five of them - their whole estate would pass to their unbelievably fatuous clergyman-cousin, Mr. Collins (David Bamber) on Mr. Bennet's death.
So to secure her own financial future Mrs. Bennet must find affluent hubbies for her fractious daughters.
And thus the swift ride of "Pride" begins.
1996 marks the 200th anniversary of Austen's initial work on "Pride and Prejudice." In that sense, the A&E miniseries was 200 years in the making - so the 10 years it took Birtwistle and screenwriter Andrew Davies to bring "Pride and Prejudice" to air doesn't seem nearly as long as it might otherwise.
The creative team first took the project to England's commercial ITV network, which decided it was too soon after the 1979 BBC version to give "Pride and Prejudice" another go-round. But the BBC jumped eagerly at the idea of Darcy and Lizzy redux.
What happened next was as big as the Blizzard of 1996.
It was flat-out Darcymania.
"The BBC said it was the biggest response to a classic TV drama ever," Birtwistle said. "Over 40 percent of the viewing public watched, "and we got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from viewers of all ages about Darcy. We got a letter from one woman who said she was a grandmother, saying `Darcy can share my shower any time he wants.' We got Darcy letters from 7-year-olds, from husbands complaining about their wives having Darcy fixations.
"I expected lots of female response, but a lot of teen-age boys got hooked on `Pride and Prejudice,' too. I've heard the in-thing now is for young men to stand moodily at windows wearing white ruffled shirts and doing the Darcy silent act.
"There's a scene where Darcy jumps into a pond in his white ruffled shirt and gets it all wet, and it was a big deal when Colin gave the shirt to a children's charity to auction off."
Yet Firth, who has lived with actress Meg Tilly for five years and has a son with her, was at first reluctant to consider playing Darcy the Dashing.
"Colin wasn't that keen on it, and frankly no one else besides me was keen to cast him, " Birtwistle said. "I just knew he could do it, but some people thought he wouldn't be attractive enough.
"And Colin hadn't read any Jane Austen at the time. He thought it was a lot of girly stuff. And he was worried everyone would compare him to (Laurence) Olivier, who starred with Greer Garson in the 1941 film version.
"But of course `Pride and Prejudice' was the program that made people in the supermarket recognize him. Colin's slightly bemused by it, but I did actually promise him it would happen."
Despite Darcymania, "Pride and Prejudice" was not greeted with universal critical praise when it aired in England. Two earlier BBC television productions in 1965 and 1979 and the Olivier film set standards of language and performance that not all critics and viewers wanted to see violated.
Those earlier versions were filmed almost entirely on sound stages indoors. But Davies, producer Birtwistle and director Simon Langton decided to give Darcy, Lizzy and friends a breath of fresh air by filming them at balls and outings in elegant locations in the English countryside.
"In 1979 only about 10 percent of the production was shot outside, and the rest was inside with just nine days' rehearsal, so there was a stiffness about it," Langton said.
Among the many directing credits in Langton's long affiliation with the BBC are episodes of the celebrated series "Upstairs, Downstairs" and TV adaptations of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" and John le Carre's "Smiley's People." He also directed the feature film "The Whistle Blower."
"But Andrew (Davies) wrote a script for us with 75 percent of the scenes outside," Langton said. "And he also wrote one or two scenes which are not in the book, quite a lot of them involving Mr. Darcy to make him seem flesh and blood _ including his diving into that pond after he got all hot and sweaty. These scenes were latched onto by detractors.
"Also, Andrew instilled in the script a vigor and accessibility that wasn't in more faithful adaptations that had been done before. After all, `Pride and Prejudice' is fundamentally a comedy of manners, and it should be light and frothy and witty and fast and - as in all great comedies - it must also be real.
"So we tried to free the actors, to make them interact in a much more informal way, which sometimes worked against the dialogue. But I was determined that this production should be more naturalistic, although we ran the risk of offending purists."
And Firth needn't have worried about being compared to Olivier.
"Of course, the Olivier film was made in Hollywood with big stars, but it was very compressed and is often considered one of Olivier's worst performances," Langton said. "And they used 1830s costumes (Austen died in 1817) - they must have had a lot of them in stock in wardrobe."
Langton's most difficult shooting situation was undoubtedly the intricate dance scene at Netherfield (an estate leased by Bingley), which is "six or seven minutes of nonstop dancing and talking."
In that scene Darcy and Lizzy come together and part as dozens of couples change partners by executing elaborate patterns of steps.
"This took a lot of thought and practice, so they wouldn't get out of sync," Langton said. Ultimately, the rhythmic meeting and parting of the emotionally charged duo makes for one of the miniseries' most passionate moments. Their antagonistic courtship is mirrored in their dance. But this is only one of Austen's emotional pinnacles. Like most "Pride and Prejudice" aficionados, Ehle and Birtwistle each have their favorite moments.
To Ehle it's when Lizzy finally tells her father that "Mr. Darcy is the most wonderful person she has ever known."
"You see, Mr. Bennet has great weakness. He's stuck in this dubious marriage, burying himself in his office, and he lets Mrs. Bennet run riot. When Lizzy finally sees her own father's weakness, that frees her to fall in love with Darcy."
To Birtwistle it's when Elizabeth visits Pemberley (Darcy's country estate) and helps to smooth an embarrassing reference to wicked Wickham by Bingley's malicious sister.
"Darcy just sits in silence and looks so in love with Lizzy," Birtwistle said. "You just pray they'll get together. But there they sit in silence. There's the wonderful pleasure of anticipation. And it just makes your heart beat faster and faster."