Tune in, switch off - Enjoy getting lost in Austen

30th October 2009 at 00:00
We know that the young will end up in love, but not until we have enjoyed their mistakes and mishaps. It's television comfort food

Come the autumn schedules, come the costume dramas. And Sunday evenings, those low points when we have lost the will to teach, are once again cheered by the donning of wigs and fancy dress, watching lives lived in National Trust properties in the timeless pursuit of love.

From the Brontes' broodings to confidences in Cranford, the formula is fixed. We know that the young will end up in love, but not until we have enjoyed their mistakes and mishaps. It's television comfort food, a national substitute for going to church.

We have only had two TV versions of Emma (BBC One) in recent years, so time for a third. Roll out Romola Garai in the lead role. Emma's a clucking, ducking manipulator with the emotional intelligence of a hat pin, misleading her puppet friend, Harriet, into expectations of a match with vicar of Highbury, Mr Elton. We are back to church again.

But Mr Elton is not back to church, and certainly not with Harriet. When he attempts to make passionate love to a soon distraught Emma during a carriage ride, the furnishings are the only soft thing he encounters. Rejected, he is off to Bath for a #163;20,000-a-year match. Charity, after all, doesn't begin in church, even if it does pay the salary.

Marriages are made in Jane Austen novels. The wealthy gossip and it takes ages for little to happen. A lady's stumble at the cliff edge is top news. A piano delivery is talk of the town for months. And, hold the front page, there is snow. It may be computer generated, but the flakes looked genuine.

Without the usual Andrew Davies script, there was no bonking or bonnet-bashing. So the surprises were in the real characters rather than the fictional ones. Was that Jonny Lee Miller from Trainspotting giving some bottle to the noble Mr Knightley - from Sick Boy to slick boy? Did you recognise Michael Gambon as Emma's weak-willed, weather-fearing father? Probably not as he was always swathed in scarves.

The final episodes were filled with ballrooms (useful if you missed Strictly), banqueting and Box Hill. Emma was sure footed on the dancefloor, but she sure put her foot in it on the romance score. Fast-forward 200 years and she could be running an internet dating agency.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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