I used to regard A&E as one of the premier cable channels in the U.S. Known then as the Arts and Entertainment Network, it ran such prestigious shows as the 6-hr 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Inspector Morse, Midsommer Murders, and Biography. (These days this once admirable network features rubbish like Storage Wars, Duck Dynasty, Dog, the Bounty Hunter, Flipping Las Vegas, and Donny Loves Jenny.) Regardless of the transformation, I shall always be grateful to A&E for showcasing P&P in the fall of 1995. For six weeks we were treated to this marvelous adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. The mini-series held me spellbound (and my then husband as well). I wanted to be Lizzy to Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. What romantic-minded lady didn’t?
Rewatching the first minutes of the first episode, I was reminded of how compact and economical those opening scenes were – and how they crucially fed our expectations for the rest of the series. In interviews over the years, Andrew Davies, the screenwriter, said that he wanted to emphasize the lives of Regency men as well, and so the film opens with Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy racing through the fields on their steeds to view Netherfield Park, which was available to let. The relationship between Darcy and Bingley is immediately established – Bingley the eager puppy wanting his friend’s approval, and Darcy’s slightly caustic reply as a supportive older friend, cautioning him that he’ll find the society something savage.
As the two friends gallop away, the camera pans to Elizabeth, who pauses during her country walk to watch the men disappear. We follow the tomboyish Lizzy as she skips home over a dirt path, past a field with horses, and to the Bennet family home, Longbourn. Lizzy gazes through the window into her father’s study, while in the background we hear loud bickering between two young women. Mr. Bennet, holding a book in his right hand, rolls his eyes as Lizzy smiles in acknowledgment. This brief exchange demonstrates their close relationship in an instant.
We are then treated to a raucous scene in the parlor with Kitty, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet in all their argumentative glory. Only Mary sits quietly, reading a book amid the mayhem. A calm, beautiful Jane greets Lizzy, who has just entered the hallway. Both respond to their mother’s shrill cries with half smiles and serene expressions. These scenes, in which the viewer meets quite a few of the principal characters, took all of 3 minutes.
We next see the Bennets at church in their Sunday best. The costumes are sumptuous; the locations are authentic – not the staged sets that were so prevalent in BBC dramas of the 70’s and 80’s. I recall the excitement I felt when I saw the care that the director and producers had taken to give us an “authentic” English Regency experience. Cameras followed the actors as they moved through the rooms of real houses and the lanes and paths of actual locations. The stilted production techniques inside studio interiors that used two or three fixed camera angles belonged to the past. The BBC and PBS had finally caught up with commercial television in shooting and producing drama that seemed realistic.
The church scene provides us with two of Jane Austen’s most famous lines. Mrs. Bennet runs after Mr. Bennet screeching, “Mr. Bennet, wonderful news. Netherfield Park is let at last!” We are then treated to the brilliant witty dialogue that Jane Austen crafted for Mr Bennet as he replies to his wife’s many suppositions and inanities.
Andrew Davies gives Lizzy the honor of speaking the novel’s famous opening line, “For a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” How apropos. Only 4:20 minutes have elapsed at this point. Even my ex, who had not read any of Jane’s novels, understood the plot for the full 6 episodes – two bachelors, five single girls, a silly mother, a sarcastic father, and romance and social history galore. We settled in for six hours of satisfying viewing time.
I could continue, but at this rate it would take me over 400 pages just to describe the first episode. Suffice it to say that I love Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and prefer Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy (horrid wig and all) over Keira Knightley as Lizzy 2005. Some critics with modern sensibilities found Ehle too old and zaftig for the part of Lizzy Bennet. Jennifer was 25 when she took on the role, only 5 years older than Lizzy. (Twenty-five year old Julia Sawalha, who played 15 year old Lydia, was ten years older! And let’s not argue about 30-something Greer Garson playing Lizzy Bennet in 1940 P&P. Awful.)
As for Jennifer Ehle being too heavy for the part of a 20 year old Regency girl, those critics need only to examine images of that era to see that Jennifer was the perfect size to play Lizzy. Keira Knightley possesses the thin fashionable looks that suit our 21st century tastes, but not those that depict early 19th century beauties. Feel free to disagree.
The 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice also benefited from the immensely satisfying performances of Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet, Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet, David Bamber as the incredibly silly Mr. Collins, and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as insufferable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I found very little fault with the supporting actors, who played their roles to perfection. I can’t say how often I’ve seen this version of P&P – 12, 15 times? I’ve lost count. Be assured that I’ll enjoy many more viewings.
In case you wondered how Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would look after 15 years of marriage, here’s a lovely image.
Additional bits of information about P&P 1995:
- **Costuming Pride and Prejudice (1995) at Frock Flicks: This blog provides a detailed discussion with multiple images. I highly recommend that you read this well-researched post.
- Behind the Scenes of Pride and Prejudice, published on Jennier Ehle (is made of awesome) blog.
- Pride and Prejudice: Behind the Scenes of Mr Darcy Swimming. Andrew Davies discusses the scene with Mr. Darcy swimming. YouTube video. 1:57 minutes.
- Pride and Prejudice blooper: YouTube video of Mr. Bingley’s speech drowned by an airplane.
- BBCs Pride and Prejudice page is archived and no longer updated. Still, there are some lovely bits of information left.
- Anna Chancellor, who played the best Miss Bingley in my opinion, is related to Jane Austen, who is her six-time great aunt (or 8 times, depending on the source). If you examine Anna’s striking eyes and compare them to the portraits of Jane’s father and brothers, and to the small watercolor that Cassandra had painted of her sister, and the way that all the family members set their mouths, you will notice the family resemblance. Genes will tell, even generations later.