PRIDE AND PASSIONS
HOW COLIN FIRTH'S MR. DARCY HAS BECOME THE NATION'S HEART-THROB
Sunday night sees the final episode of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the moment that nine million viewers have been waiting for: the kiss that seals the nuptials of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
Those who observed the kiss on set say that lips were bruised after numerous takes. "There was incredible sexual tension between them and I think that shows on screen," said one insider.
For it has emerged that Colin Firth, who plays Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle, who plays Lizzie, fell for each other in real life. Love's sweet song wove its spell in the Wiltshire countryside. Those lingering looks were for true. Passion really did surge beneath frock-coat and empire line.
Their love affair gives their acting an added resonance and them an added radiance. It has ensured that the gossip columns have been full of talk. And it had helped to confirm Firth as the nation's heart-throb. Of course, it helps that he plays one of the most romantic fictional characters of all time. Firth himself had never read Jane Austen's work before Andrew Davies' script landed on his desk. "Nineteenth-century literature didn't seem very sexy to me", he says. "I had this prejudice that it would probably be girl's stuff. I had never realised that Darcy was such a famous figure in literature." But then, he continues, he would mention the script, and "everyone would tell me how they were devoted to this book, how at school they had been in love with Mr. Darcy, and my brother said, 'Darcy, isn't he supposed to be sexy?'"
There's no denying Firth's own appeal. Aged 34, he stand six foot one in his stockinged feet, with tousled brown hair and deep-set eyes. Still the role failed to appeal. "I looked in the mirror and I didn't see Darcy," he says. And he doubted that he was up to the part. "I started to think, 'Oh God, Olivier was fantastic and no one else could ever play the part'".
He struggled with a character who still remains an enigma until the end of the book. "I reasoned: "To make myself different enough to play Darcy, I will have to do an awful lot.' But doing anything is the last thing that is right for playing Darcy. The only way for it to work is to be Darcy already."
The conviction of producer Sue Birtwistle changed his mind. "I realised that I had begun to appropriate the character and I now owned it. The thought of anyone else doing it made me feel rather jealous," he says. His Darcy is all his own. He is neither too idiosyncratic nor too bland. Colin Firth has achieved his aim.
But he found the part exhausting. "In the first assembly-room scene, I had to go in and be hurt, angry, intimidated, annoyed, irritated, amused, horrified, appalled and keep all these reactions within this very narrow framework of being inscrutable because nobody ever knows quite what Darcy's thinking.
"I've played some far more physically energetic parts, but I don't think I've ever been as physically exhausted at the end of a take as I have with Darcy."
Firth's past roles have chiefly cast him as a member of the upper classes. He acted in both the play and film of Another Country, Julian Mitchell's exploration of public school life. Then he portrayed officer Robert Lawrence in the BBC film Tumbledown, about the Falklands War, and John McCarthy in the ITV dramatisation Hostages.
But although he gives every appearance of being public school, an officer and a gentleman, in fact Firth went to a comprehensive in Winchester and failed his 11-plus.
"I had a dreadful education for the most part. Throughout my school days I talked with a broad Hampshire accent. Then I went to drama school and suddenly became a sort of English public school boy."
The Firth household in Grayshott in Hampshire was an academic one. His father lectures in history, his mother teaches English and comparative religions.
The oldest of three, young Colin left school to work at the Shaw Theatre and, he quips, as a "workroom assistant, trainee, second class" at the National Theatre, which meant making tea for everyone. But drama school and television success soon followed.
His personal life has been less happy. He has a four-year-old son, Will, from a five-year liaison with actress Meg Tilly. That, too, was a screen romance. Chemistry spilt over on the set of Valmont, a British version of the play Dangerous Liaisons. He is devoted to his son and mixed filming with fatherhood recently when Will stayed with him on the set of Pride and Prejudice for three months. He commutes between his flat in Hackney, east London, and Canada and Hollywood where Will lives with his mother.
He has now parted with Jennifer Ehle, their romance curtailed in part by his recent trips to South America to film the BBC's epic production of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. He and fellow stars Albert Finney and Claudia Cardinale have also recently been filming in Italy.
Firth has said he is in no hurry to marry. He has fame and calls from Hollywood to busy him. But millions of female viewers know that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.