An Austen Tale of Sex and Money In Which Girls Kick Up Their Heels
14 January 1996
The New York Times
William Bennett, take heart. Jane Austen has displaced Joe Eszterhas as the hottest script factory in the entertainment industry. Last year, without benefit of a single nude scene or sizzling lesbian smooch, ''Sense and Sensibility'' and ''Persuasion'' whipped ''Jade'' and ''Showgirls.'' This year, Austen rolls on with a three-part ''Pride and Prejudice'' that begins tonight at 8 on A&E.
This ''Pride and Prejudice,'' a joint production of the BBC and A&E, does shorten the distance just a bit between Joe and Jane, however. It is not a lace doily. When Sue Birtwistle, the producer of the series, first announced her intention to adapt ''Pride and Prejudice'' for television, she told reporters that she intended to bring out the real subjects of the novel: sex and money. The tabloids jumped. One headline read, ''Sex Romp Jane Austen.''
''What I meant by sexy was smoldering looks across rooms, or hands touching,'' said Ms. Birtwistle in a recent interview. ''But one paper after another picked up on this. They wouldn't let it die.''
Ms. Birtwistle's production, which as adapted by Andrew Davies, the scriptwriter for the PBS series ''House of Cards'' and ''Middlemarch,'' may not deliver a full romp, but it does bring a big dose of social realism, class consciousness and outdoorsy vigor to a novel that has too often been treated like a piece of old china.
''We definitely didn't want to do what we saw as the old studio-bound BBC drama that was shown in the Sunday teatime slot,'' said Ms. Birtwistle. ''It's a lively book, and we wanted to get across its vitality. We didn't want people sitting stiffly in drawing rooms.''
They don't. The Bennet daughters kick up their heels at dances, burst out of doors for long walks and stroll the street of Meryton, the market town just a mile from their home. The prideful Darcy, grandest catch ever to come within the Bennet orbit, does his necessary share of sneering in drawing rooms, but he also roams the landscape on horseback.
In one scene, after stripping down to a shirt and tight riding pants, he plunges into the pond on his estate, observed, as it happens, by Elizabeth Bennet, who is well on the way to dropping her prejudice after getting a good eyeful. It is pretty clear that she doesn't mind the look of Darcy's estate either. Sex and money indeed.
The money shows most obviously in the houses, and the producers found some corkers, including Sudbury Hall, a National Trust building in Derby shire, where Darcy lives, and Belton House in Lincolnshire for the aristocratic de Bourgh family.
But differences on income and class show up in every detail. Ms. Birtwistle is firm on this. ''There isn't a character in the novel who's introduced without his income being mentioned in the next sentence,'' she said. ''Everybody knows how much everybody else is worth, and they discuss it.''
Therefore the Bennet sisters, prosperously middle class, wear Empire muslin dresses, with corsets that thrust the bosom up and out in a daring Wonderbra effect. The de Bourghs wear silk, which because of the war with France is available only through special connections.
Darcy, with a Rolls-Royce income, must ride accordingly. ''Darcy would have the best horse, so the production designer went out and auditioned horses,'' said Ms. Birtwistle.
It's nice to get the right horse, but it also helps to get the right Darcy and Elizabeth, especially with the long shadows of Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson still looming over the story.
For Elizabeth, who is 20 in the novel, the producers searched far and wide, interviewing hundreds of actresses between 15 and 30. The part went to Jennifer Ehle, who is in her mid-20's and had appeared in a television mini-series and two stage products by Peter Hall since leaving drama school in 1991. ''I also had five syllables as Cynthia Lennon in a film called 'Backbeat,''' said Ms. Ehle, who jumped at the part of Elizabeth.
''Elizabeth has many of the characteristics that women in the 1990's think that we have reclaimed, or even invented,'' she said. ''It's exciting to see those in a woman written by a woman in the early 1800's.''
Surrounding Ms. Ehle are some familiar faces. Susannah Harker, who plays sister Jane, was the reporter in ''House of Cards'' on Masterpiece Theater, and Julia Sawalha, the soldier-obssessed Lydia, was Saffron on ''Absolutely Fabulous.'' Alison Steadman (Mrs. Bennet) has appeared in several films by Mike Leigh, including ''Life Is Sweet.''
Casting Darcy posed a different kind of problem. Because the character is 30, the producers were automatically zeroing in on actors with track records. Colin Firth, with whom Ms. Birtwistle worked in the filming of the comedy ''Dutch Girls'' in 1987, wound up at the top of a very short list. He was handsom and virile. In addition to playing the title role in ''Valmont,'' he had played a kind of Irish Darcy in ''Circle of Friends.'' There was just one hitch: he didn't want the part.
''He said, 'I've never read a word of Jane Austen,' Ms. Birtwistle recalled. '''It's girlie stuff, isn't it?''' Mr. Firth agreed to read the script, liked it and changed his mind. Then he changed it again. As he headed off to America, Ms. Birtwistle thrust the script into his arms, along with an eight-page letter explaining why he had to take the part. When the plane touched down in Los Angeles, he called her and surrendered.
There were good reasons for misgivings. ''For the first third of the piece, Darcy doesn't have a great deal to do except stand and smolder arrogantly,'' said Delia Find, the vice president of film, drama and performing arts programming at A&E. ''He has to be goodlooking, but he also has to smolder intelligently. Otherwise Lizzy wouldn't be interested.''
Just as important, the British public had to believe Mr. Firth as Darcy, one of the most memorably drawn characters in the language. An early vote came while shooting was in progress, when Angela Horne, whose house in Wiltshire stood in for the Bennet abode, took Mr. Firth's measure.
As Ms. Fine tells it, Mrs. Horne, who is well into her 80's, approched her one day and said, ''I was most intrigued when they wanted to use the house for 'Pride and Prejudice,' but I was terribly worried about Darcy. Well, I met him this morning, and he will do. He gave my heart quite a flutter.''
That reaction spread throughout Britain when ''Pride and Prejudice'' was broadcast last fall and became the biggest television event since ''Dallas.'' About 40 percent of the nation's television sets saw pride reconciled with prejudice in the final episode of the series.
Ms. Birtwistle has been getting fan letters ever since. One was from a woman who recounted, with some embarrassment, a visit to the hospital emergency room after seing the last episode. Her symptoms -- shortness of breath, sweating and racing pulse -- suggested an impending heart attack.
''The doctor examined her, asked what she had been doing, thought a bit and came up with a diagnosis,'' said Ms. Birtwistle. ''He told her, 'You are in love with Darcy.'''
04:39 EST January 14, 1996