Adaptable characters

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
PERSPECTIVES ON PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Video, audio-cassette, booklet. Pounds 46.99, BBC Education 0181 746 1111.

Bethan Marshall sees what light television can throw on Pride and Prejudice. Many secondary English departments use mainstream programmes in preference to those produced specifically for schools. This is particularly the case with drama, where teachers make extensive use of the work of television dramatists such as Alan Bleasdale and Dennis Potter and adaptations of novels into television serials.

In response to this, the BBC's education department has produced resource packs to help schools make the most of its major drama productions, such as Middlemarch and now Pride and Prejudice. This latest pack, Perspectives on Pride and Prejudice, includes an 85-minute video, a 75-minute audio-cassette and 80-page booklet, with the video corresponding with the contents of the booklet.

Aimed primarily at A-level English and media students, the video element of the resource pack offers a range of views on Jane Austen's era and examines the use of irony, the nature of relationships and the characters within the novel. It illustrates its points by using extracts from the television adaptation. When describing patronage, it shows the obsequious Mr Collins fawning on Lady Catherine and when "entailment" is explained, we see the same characters discussing Elizabeth Bennett's future.

But this technique is most usefully applied when talking about irony. Many pupils have difficulty in detecting certain forms of irony - while understanding dramatic irony is usually straightforward, irony that relies on hearing the tone of voice in a description or speech can be harder to identify.

The video, by delivering lines through the mouths of particular characters, allows pupils to discover the intended irony. The excellent notes which accompany it reinforce many of the issues raised, either through further discussion or activity sheets.

What is potentially the most useful section on the video and audio-cassette, and is not fully exploited in the booklet, is the extensive archive material that the BBC has to offer. It was fascinating to see how stagey the 1967 adaptation of the novel appeared. Even the 1980 adaptation, which I can remember enjoying greatly, seemed stilted in comparison with the Andrew Davies script that was broadcast last year. It is immensely important for pupils to understand that different readings will highlight different aspects of character and setting.

Seeing how different writers have interpreted the novel can only help this process. Listening to Andrew Davies and Fay Weldon on the audio-cassette, discussing the dilemmas of adapting Jane Austen, is fascinating in its illustration of the strengths of the writing in the novels. How do you convey that arch authorial voice? How do you indicate social observation, particularly on the role of women, in a production that may reek of heritage England?

What the pack as a whole raises is the uneasy relationship between a television adaptation (which undoubtedly brings the text alive) and the study of the text itself. Two separate disciplines are involved, possibly three if we include drama. While these are often complementary, the different forms of the same "story" can become confused and interfere with one another.

The question also arises as to who should talk about the dramatised text - the literary critics, the television producers, or the performers?

Watching a middle-aged professor of literature talking about a book may not inspire enthusiasm in the average adolescent, so one method employed here is to have the actors talking about how they see the characters they play and to ask the views of the producer. Another way of getting pupils to think about the adaptation is to ask pupils to imagine how they would direct a scene or how they would play a role.

Yet out of all these approaches it is the professor, Marilyn Butler, who has the really pertinent and original things to say about the characters and relationships in the book, rather than the cast.

Clearly there is enormous potential for the BBC's education department in producing support materials for mainstream output. This will have to find the right balance between education and star appeal, widening the narrow scope of costume drama, while still providing high-quality material for schools.

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