Having a ball

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.BBC1, Sunday, September 24, 9.00-9.55pm

When Mrs Bennet, played by Alison Steadman, explodes on to the screen in this modern, dynamic, and occasionally provocative BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice it is obvious that she is going to be more than the "woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper" of the novel.

Verging on hysteria in many of the early scenes, she is, along with Miss Bingley (Anna Chancellor) and Mr Collins (David Bamber), the object of much of the director's comic exaggeration.

While standing as superb performances in their own right, these portrayals also serve to complement the more subtly-interpreted roles in the six-part drama. For where deception, emotional turmoil and self-discovery are involved, the adaptation has remained more faithful to Jane Austen's own characterisation.

There are other differences. Scenes have been shortened, amalgamated even invented; minor facts have been changed, and the sequence of some episodes has been altered. But behind all of these changes is the purpose of keeping the dramatic impact at its height. For example, attributing the novel's first ironic sentence to Elizabeth Bennet ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"), links her character immediately with the voice of the author.

The fidelity to the original text is striking and where changes or additions have been made it is with a view to exposing a character, or adding humour or irony to a situation. The portrayal of the ridiculous Caroline Bingley is enhanced by added witticisms such as (on Mrs Bennet's bursting on to the scene during Jane's illness) "And now the mother. Are we to be invaded by every Bennet in the country?" or the drily sarcastic ". . . and all your daughters I see", as she welcomes the Bennets to the Netherfield ball.

Television provides an added dimension which enhances the study of the novel. From the moment the silks, satins and lace of the credit shots roll on to the screen we are immersed in the essentially feminine world of Longbourn, where social and financial acceptability are paramount and marriage provides "the only honourable provision for young women of small fortune".

Characters are revealed not just through dialogue, but through the exquisite costumes and sets and the camera can make explicit what is implicit in the text. We frequently see secret and thought-revealing close-ups of characters or follow their eyes as they react to a person or situation.

Darcy is often seen watching Elizabeth through a window, and it is in such a shot, when she and Jane are leaving Netherfield, that we witness his growing awareness of the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.

These features will serve to stimulate discussion on the characters and themes of the novel. The strong characterisation provokes response and encourages further examination of the originals. An examination of the novel's catastrophe and its protagonists' fatal flaws can be undertaken by the study of individual performances. Through Jennifer Ehle's sensitive and befitting portrayal of Elizabeth we see at an early stage hints of the character defect which is so central to the developing theme of the novel.

When taken in conjunction with later scenes, the mistakes which Elizabeth makes, can be seen as the seeds of her growing "prejudice". Darcy's haughty pride, Lydia's flirtatious behaviour and Mrs Bennet's desperation to see her daughters married are all impressed upon us by skilful acting and direction, and serve as early clues to later developments.

The Netherfield Ball scene is worthy of attention for its thematic significance and detailed characterisation as well as its sheer entertainment value. This scene has everything visual impact, beautifully-filmed dance sequences, extravagant costumes, intrigue and a backdrop provided by the wonderful comedy of the obsequious Mr Collins, as he creates confusion on the dance floor.

The social scrutiny, wit, elegance and irony of the novel are all present in this production and the imaginative direction of Simon Langton bestows a modern interpretation on the themes and characters, while retaining the charm and atmosphere of Jane Austen's work.

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