Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Pride and Prejudice: a Tale of Two Mini-Series

Recently I was trapped in a hotel room in Slave Lake, Alberta. Too tired to do anything productive, and with no local entertainments to draw me out into the bitter, frigid night, I did the only reasonable thing that occurred to me. I watched the 1980 mini-series of Pride and Prejudice on Youtube.

I was deeply apprehensive about doing so. I have attempted to watch pre-nineties adaptations before, and been horrified, so it was with no small suspense that I began the first episode. I think what surprised me the most was how not terrible it was. I would be tempted to say that it is Jane Austen's writing that is so genius, it shines through any production, but one need only look to the latest screen adaptation of the same work to be woefully disproved in that theory.

The 1995 version is definitely superior, on balance, but I must give credit to the 1980 series, as it did many things right. Most importantly, the writers kept as much of Jane Austen's words as they could. Something I cannot tolerate in adaptations of her work is when they totally change the words to the point that none of the underlying genius remains. I understand that dialogue needs to be adjusted to make it work, and I completely allow for the difference between the art forms of novel writing and film-making, but I was nonetheless pleased at the respect for the original work that was shown in the writing.

The casting of Jane Bennett was also excellent in the 1980 show. I have nothing against Susannah Harker, but she is not even as pretty as Jennifer Ehle, much less ten times prettier.

Susannah Harker and Jennifer Ehle

Sabina Franklyn was just right for the role, even if her hair was kind of frizzy in a rather 1970's kind of way.

Sabina Franklyn as Jane Bennett

Barbara Shelley as Mrs. Gardiner
I also really liked Mrs. Gardiner. I thought she really seemed elegant, yet unpretentious. She seemed like just the sort of person Lizzy would confide in and love. She was just as I imagined her in the book. There is nothing wrong with Joanna David's performance. I enjoyed her as I have in all her other roles. I just don't find her as warm as I did Barbara Shelley.

Even with these considerations, however, my opinion of the 1995 series as definitive and best was not threatened in the slightest. A lot of that has to do with advances in film-making generally between 1980 and 1995. We just got a lot better at making shows. I say "we" meaning humanity in general, of course.

In criticising productions, I very rarely blame the actors, and in the case of the 1980 production I am not sure the actors themselves were to blame but the acting itself certainly was. Acting is one of the things that, in my opinion, got a lot better between 1980 and 1995. There will be some who disagree, citing some stellar performances of a bygone age, but really, acting for film and television, generally, has developed as an art form, which is as one would expect given the novelty of it.

It may have been the director making it happen, but the acting was far too artificial, far too choreographed to draw me in. Jane Austen's dialogue is certainly archaic and may feel foreign, but there is no reason it cannot be recited naturally, as we have seen in many subsequent productions.

Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzy
I suspect the director was experienced in classical theatre but not screen acting. There was no intimacy to the performances and it kept me from being drawn in. I just didn't care about the characters that much because they didn't seem like real people.

Perhaps the greatest victim of this was Lizzy. I just didn't like her. I couldn't believe Mr. Darcy would feel so passionately about her. She didn't seem to have any depth. At first, I thought Mr. Darcy was excellent, but that was only in the first half of the show, when he hardly spoke and was disagreeable. Once he started talking, and trying to get Lizzy, and by extension the audience, to like him, it all fell apart. He had convinced me to dislike him, but he could not convince me to like him.

Also, Lady Catherine wasn't funny enough. Mr. Collins was trying to be funny, but he didn't make me actually laugh, not like David Bamber. Mrs. Bennett was quite good. Actually, she might have been one of the better ones, but she just didn't throw herself into it and make it as ridiculous as it should have been, not the way Allison Steadman does. And in much the same way, there is simply no competing with Julia Sawalha as Lydia.

These last two examples perhaps lead me to the belief that it is unfair to compare anything to the 1995 version. The casting was, on the whole, so inspired, and the writing and the production so near perfect, that no other attempt can be expected to rival it.

That said, there was reasonable room for improvement in the 1980 attempt. Another element of the show that demonstrated our advances in film-making was the editing. Not only was everything set up like a stage production, and the pacing very slow, but the transitions themselves were painful. Did someone invent the cross-fade just as this show was in post-production, and were the editors so fascinated and excited by it that they felt they had to use it in EVERY transition? It just made everything drag, and interfered with my suspension of disbelief. The 1995 version, by contrast, skips along at a lively pace and keeps the interest and the energy alive.

I know we fans are often mocked for our devotion to the 1995 mini-series, but really, can you blame us?

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook


  1. For me there is no comparison, the 1980 version is superior in every way, I can't believe how awful Allison Steadman (much too vulgar) and Julia Sawalha are in the 1995 series, and David Bamber is about a foot too short to play Collins.
    But thankfully we all have different tastes, I believe there are actually some people who like the 2005 film.

    1. Indeed, we do all have different tastes. I can't even begin to talk about the 2005 film. It raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels. I did think the 1980 version was good, and very faithful. It has also been suggested that our response may be affected by which one we saw first.