The withdrawal of Elizabeth Fry from our bank notes, making currency an all-male preserve, raises the question of the other women who deserve this honour. Who indeed would be more appropriate than Jane Austen: few writers understood the importance of money as well as she did and the danger and women in vulnerable social positions needing marriage for security and status is ever present in her novels.
Mrs Bennet is the only one to be fully aware that her daughters’ cosseted existences could come to an end at any moment should their father die. Although it’s unlikely that Austen ever envisaged the famous opening line springing from her lips, it does feel suitable that Rebecca Lacey’s Mrs B comes across as the evening’s leading lady – the story might be wish fulfilment for millions, but no one could take as much pleasure in Lizzy Bennet’s good fortune as her mamma.
An alfresco setting on a fine evening makes everything more agreeable and Deborah Bruce’s light, bright and sometimes sparkling production staged on an attractive iron-wrought revolving set (by Max Jones) has a touch of the Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson film about it (particularly towards the end). The brisk adaptation by Simon Reade that splices scenes together and simplifies expositions in a condensed timeframe (the real luxury of a six-hour miniseries is the way it is able to convey the passing of time) remains very faithful to Austen’s incomparable dialogue in all its wordy elegance.
As is so often the case with literary adaptations, the necessity of covering all the important plot points inevitably means that most aspects outside the main story are skimmed over. The sisterly relationship between Elizabeth and Jane is barely touched upon (the latter comes across as merely drippy), as is Elizabeth’s attraction to Wickham and her bond with her father. Pleasingly, due attention is granted to Charlotte Lucas’s (Olivia Darnley) pragmatism in making the best of a bad lot and her self discipline that prevents her marriage from being a repeat of the Bennets’.
As Lizzy and Darcy, Jennifer Kirby and David Oakes aren’t likely to eclipse anyone’s memories of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth or Garson and Olivier. Kirby, who graduates from drama school later in the summer, handles the verbal gymnastics admirably and holds her own against Jane Asher’s not-for-turning Lady Catherine, but the chemistry with Oakes’s handsome but too mellow Darcy doesn’t quite crackle. The very basic choreography prevents the Meryton assembly and Netherfield ball from being true set pieces, though Mr Collins’s harassment of Elizabeth by attempting to join in a dance without a partner is amusingly done.
Ed Birch takes top comedy honours for his portrayal of Mr Collins as a self-important upstart resembling a clerical grasshopper whose legs almost steal the show. The assured debut of sixth-former Eleanor Thorn as the unrepentant Lydia highlights the fact that these are girls with very little formal education and no routine to their days and Leah Brotherhead brings tragicomic gravitas to the homily-spouting, musically inept Mary.
Reade resists the temptation to sex things up Andrew Davies-style (if Oakes’s shirts get wet, it will be due to the weather); the scene most likely to raise eyebrows is the way in which the newly-engaged Elizabeth confronts her father about the sourness of his own marriage (that’s something Keira Knightley’s abominably rude Elizabeth might have done). It also isn’t likely that he would he confide in her about the strain of remaining on intimate terms with his wife for several years after the birth of Lydia in the hope of producing the longed for son.
Any kind of diluted Austen reinforces the fact that nothing equals the book (the 1995 adaptation is as good as it gets, but anyone who talks about its absolute fidelity to the book has never read it) but a thoroughly amiable version in enchanting surroundings has reason enough for being staged. The ultimate romantic comedy is at once very simple and very intricate and 200 years after publication will never cease to delight us long enough.