I really wanted to enjoy this, especially with Poldark finishing; and I did, but with a lot of reservations. On the positive side, I loved how Andrew Davies had interpreted the characters and their friendships. Lady Denham was superb, Charlotte Heywood appealing and Miss Denham gloriously bitchy; and Sidney Parker displayed traits of both Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley. On the negative side, he’d gone so overboard in trying to “sex it up” that I got the distinct feeling that he was more interested in trying to grab headlines than in entertaining viewers. Male nude bathing period during the Regency period, OK, but not streaking across the beach! The ball ended up more like the Oom-pah-pah scene from Oliver! than something from a Jane Austen book, the suggestions of incest were gratuitous; and Sir Edward Denham and Clara Brereton were supposed to be having a quiet private conversation, not getting up to all sorts in the woods. And a bit more humour wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, in between the shots of bare backsides and wild waltzing, plenty of interesting questions were posed as to how the story might pan out, and I’ll be sticking with it. But I don’t think we’ll still be talking about this in twenty years’ time. Or even twenty weeks’ time.
The late Georgian era was not the Victorian era. Jane Austen’s books are hardly puritanical. Colonel Brandon’s childhood sweetheart had an illegitimate child and a string of lovers, Maria Rushworth (nee Bertram) left her husband and ran off with Henry Crawford, and Lydia Bennet was quite happy to live with Mr Wickham before they got married. But many of the scenes in last night’s episode just didn’t fit with her writing at all. They weren’t even historically accurate: the waltz was still considered quite shocking in 1816, when the book was set (the manuscript makes the date clear, although last night’s programme didn’t), and wouldn’t have been danced by unmarried couples at a respectable ball. And they weren’t even attractive. Mr Darcy in a wet shirt – yes. Ross Poldark scything with no top on – yes. Bare bums jiggling about on the shore – er, no, thanks.
Bare bums aside, this was always going to beg a lot of questions because Jane Austen was only able to write so little of the story before her final illness. What there is of the book tells us virtually nothing about some of the characters, and we have no real idea how everything was going to unfold or whom she intended to end up with whom. It’s also different from her other books in that it centres on, as Lady Denham summed it up, “industry and enterprise”, rather than the world of the country gentry.
Andrew Davies has developed what we are told about the characters, and I like the way he’s done that. Charlotte was in on the action from the first, with plenty of Elizabeth Bennet’s liveliness but with a touch of Catherine Morland’s naivete, and made a very appealing heroine. Clara Brereton, played by Lily Sacofsky from Didsbury – quick shout out to a fellow Mancunian there 😉 – , was reminiscent of Jane Fairfax – although Jane wouldn’t have been getting up to no good in the woods. Sidney Parker, who’s presumably going to be the hero, was being rude like Mr Darcy, delivering lectures like Mr Knightley, and generally being all dark and handsome and brooding. Arthur Parker was a bit of a comic caricature, but a lot of Austen’s characters are like that – think Mr Collins, or Anne Steele. Sir Edward Denham was very slimy, and Esther Denham very bitchy – I was going to say like a more sophisticated version of Isabella Thorpe, but she didn’t even try to be friendly with anyone!
The one main character whom we haven’t really met yet is Miss Lambe, who, as Austen’s only non-white character, will inevitably attract a lot of attention from viewers and reviewers. All Austen really tells us about us is that she’s “sickly”, the word she uses to describe Anne de Bourgh, which isn’t promising at all – I’m afraid Austen had no patience with health problems! But it looks as if Davies has imagined her being rather more like Caroline Bingley – a bit snooty and very confident, and much more interesting than Anne de Bourgh! The star of the show, though, was Lady Denham, played by Anne Reid. Absolutely brilliant! Like the Dowager Countess of Grantham crossed with a Coronation Street battleaxe. I can’t rave about her enough! I bet she gets all the best lines. And good lines are much more important than streaking across beaches.
The 9pm on Sunday timeslot’s now iconic. It’s the period drama timeslot. But Beecham House was disappointing, the last series of Victoria was too full of historical inaccuracies, the final series (sob!!) of Poldark got rather silly and now it doesn’t look as if Sanditon‘s going to live up to the high standards set by earlier series either. Thank heavens for Gentleman Jack, which raised the bar right back up! I just wish the rest of this year’s period dramas had matched it. It doesn’t look as if this one’s going to. But there were some promising aspects to the first episode, and, hey, maybe it’ll get better!