Old BBC Austen Adaptations

Old BBC Austen Adaptations

I have long championed the old BBC Austen adaptations, produced in the 70s and 80s. I was so fortunate as to receive the pictured box set several years ago as a Christmas gift, and since I have watched these films time and time again. Now, if you require beautiful cinematography and have no tolerance for this style of old, made for TV literary adaptation, which admittedly tend to be long, move slowly, and are hampered by unfortunate production quality, then no amount of praise from me will help you find enjoyment in these movies. You will lose your patience. But for me, it is precisely such attributes that make these versions feel a little more true to Austen. There is a quietness to the old adaptations, incompatible with the glossy and dramatic versions made over the last quarter of a century, that better conveys the atmosphere of her books. Not that I don’t adore the newer movies – they’re (mostly) phenomenal – but these are excellent too, and should not be forgotten. In some cases, I have yet to see a version I prefer. So here is a brief intro to and scene from each film. When I’ve written them, I’ve included links to reviews. Unfortunately, the quality issues sometime appear worse than usual in the clips, due to the quality of the recordings, but they still provide a taste of each film.

 

Sense and Sensibility, 1981

My Review

I believe Sense and Sensibility translates to film particularly well, and all the versions I have ever seen of it are quite good. I’m not sure why this version was included in the box set instead of the 1971 version (it features Joanna David as a wonderful Elinor, familiar to Janeites from her portrayal of Mrs. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice, 1995, and a fabulous performance by British TV icon Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings). Both versions leave out Margaret Dashwood entirely out of the script, which I find problematic.

The 1981 adaptation stars Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood (also Charlotte Collins in the 1980 Pride and Prejudice), Marianne is played by Tracey ChildsBosco Hogan is Edward Ferrars, and Robert Swann is Colonel Brandon, but none of these actors are in the clip below. Instead, I have chosen a scene dominated by Amanda Boxer, who portrays Fanny Dashwood. She is my favorite actress in this role. Throughout the film she is odiously smug and collected, and to see her lose it on Anne Steele (Pippa Sparkes) is hysterical. Often film makers forget that Austen is, first and foremost, a comic writer, and I really appreciate it when they pay homage to her love of absurdity and amusement in human folly. Also featured are Julia Chambers (who is fabulous) as Lucy Steele, and Peter Gale as John Dashwood.

 

Pride and Prejudice, 1980

My Review

I think it is fair to claim that this is the most beloved film in the collection. Many Janeites continue to prefer this version of Pride and Prejudice to the more acclaimed, recent versions. I think that’s because Elizabeth Garvie is so good as Elizabeth Bennet, and David Rintoul, while a bit stiff, just looks perfect as Darcy. Also, because the story has been less, um, sensationalized (no wet shirts here), it comes off as the coziest of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations available.

The scene below is the party at Lucas Lodge and features Irene Richards as Charlotte (since we missed her in action as Elinor). We also get quick glimpses of Tessa Peake-Jones as Mary Bennet (my favorite Mary!) and Priscilla Morgan as Mrs. Bennet

 

Mansfield Park, 1983

My Review

This is by far and away my preferred Mansfield Park, and for that reason alone is enough to make it my favorite film in the boxset. There are only three versions of Mansfield Park, and both the more recent films make the fundamental mistake of trying to fix the novel. This is the only one that honestly attempts to capture the true story, and Sylvestra Le Touzal (who also played Mrs. Allen in the excellent 2007 version of Northanger Abbey) is the only actress to have portrayed the real Fanny Price on screen. She is supported by Nicholas Farrell as Edmund Bertram. Both are in the featured clip, along with Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas (he was also Mr. Woodhouse in Andrew Davies’ 1996 Emma), and my favorite performers in this production: Anna Massey as Aunt Norris and Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram. This clip has fun with both, in which Fanny has been invited to her first dinner party at the Grant’s.

 

Emma, 1972

I really love this one, despite the fact that I think all three of the more recent versions of Emma are better. For whatever reason, I’ve consistently watched it more often than the other films in the boxset. Part of it, I think, is that like Sense and Sensibility, Emma works very well on film. Highlights of this version include Mollie Sugden (best known as Mrs. Slocombe on Are You Being Served?) as Mrs. Goddard, and my favorite Mr. Woodhouse, Donald Eccles, who is fabulously nervous. The below clip shows Emma (Doran Godwin) and Harriet Smith (Debbie Bowen) paying their first, introductory call on the new Mrs. Elton (Fiona Walker). This moment is only mentioned in the book, and the dialogue actually comes from Mrs. Elton’s return call on Hartfield. The end of the scene isn’t in Austen at all, but it is quite amusing, nonetheless. Mr. Elton is played by Timothy Peters. Mr. Knightley, unfortunately not featured here, is excellently captured by John Carson.

 

Persuasion, 1971

This is my favorite Persuasion adaptation. It isn’t perfect, but unlike both more recent versions, it does not rely on Austen’s cancelled chapters of the story for plot. This really bothers me! It pains me there isn’t a better, yet still accurate, film adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. So when I want to watch Persuasion, this is my go to, for it causes the least frustration.

Anne Elliot is played by Ann Firbanks, and Bryan Marshall is Captain Wentworth (though it appears to be Robert Swann – Col. Brandon from Sense & Sensibility – on the DVD cover. Such quirks I suppose to be part of the experience). The moment is when Wentworth writes and Anne receives THE LETTER. I chose it because it is almost verbatim from the book, giving viewers the opportunity to relish the complexity of the scene as Austen wrote it, and because Anne (thank goodness!) does not take to the streets of Bath and run about like a madwoman. I find that immensely gratifying. Also featured are Georgine Anderson as Mrs. Croft, Noel Dyson as Mrs. Musgrove, and Michael Culver as Captain Harville.

 

Northanger Abbey, 1987

My Review

Easily the strangest Austen adaptation ever made, the 1986 version of Northanger Abbey doesn’t really fit with the other films in this boxset. It is by far the shortest (only 78 minutes), and it wildly diverges from the novel, playing up it’s gothic aspects. A source of both outrage and fascination for fans, it is something you should really see at least once, if for no other reason than to join the debate. Also, Northanger Abbey has only ever been made into a movie twice. For those long horrified by this version, the 2007 film is so magnificent that they might like to forget this one ever existed. I think that’s a mistake. Especially now that we have a much more accurate adaptation to cling to, I can appreciate this film for just being so darn bizarre.

The below scene is an example of this outlandishness. Instead of the Pump Room, it takes place inside the King’s Bath (read my review for more history/explanation on the craziness here portrayed). You only see Mr. Tilney (Peter Firth) for a moment at the very beginning. In the baths are Catherine Morland (played by Katharine Schlesinger), Mrs. Allen (Googie Withers), Miss Tilney (Ingrid Lacey), and a most skin crawling duo: Cassie Stuart and Jonathan Coy as Isabella and John Thorpe. If you thought they were bad in the book, they are absolutely revolting here. The 80s-gone-18th century coiffures are marvelously awful. Actually, the whole film might be worth watching for the crazy head gear alone, which is on incongruous display below.

 

Have you seen and enjoyed (or hated) these films? I’d love to read your thoughts. Do share them.

36 Responses to Old BBC Austen Adaptations

  1. How delightful. I am so glad I am not alone in my love of this box-set. I agree completely with what you have said regarding this movies. I completely wore out my S&S DVD. I’ve replaced it 2 or 3 times now. It wanted to lock-up on me at about the time Colonel Brandon visits Elinor at Mrs. Jennings town-house. Blooper: when the carriage is bringing the Dashwood ladies to Barton Cottage… look in the background, down the lane. As the carriage approaches, a modern delivery truck speeds by the opening to the lane. What a hoot. Yeah, I’ve watched it a dozen times or more.

    MP is the best Fanny of any movie version, although many slammed Sylvestra Le Touzal’s performance. She also made an excellent Mrs. Allen in the 2007 NA. Why is Fanny so hard to portray? Because adaptations want to depict her as beautiful and seductive [Frances O’Conner]… nope, it simply doesn’t work. The 2007 version with Billie Piper was too happy as she ran through the house… Aunt Norris would NEVER have allowed that to happen. Anna Massey as Aunt Norris was the best.

    Note: in Persuasion… look at the scene in Anne’s bed chamber when she was talking with Lady Russell. There are two statue candelabras in the background. I think they were used again in the 2007 version at the end of the staircase in the front foyer. I tried to get a glimpse at the ’95 film to see if they were used again. There is that scene with Anne and Lady Russell in the drawing room where everything is covered in dust cloths… I couldn’t get a good look at the candelabras in the background.

    The best part of NA is that final scene. To me that depicts the tone of a Gothic novel. It was so romantic and Peter Firth was an excellent romantic looking hero as he arrived on his horse. For a moment I was a bit confused when it switched from her daydream to reality.

    This box-set is the only film version where ladies walk in a proper manner of the times. It was like a glide… no movement of the hips, due to the constraints of their undergarments. I thought that was interesting along with the slippers they wore in the house. I loved their hats.

    Thank you for this post. Sorry not all of the scenes were allowed to be presented. I think I feel an Austen box-set marathon coming on.

    • Wow! Amazing call on the candelabra! I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. Ever notice that Jane Fairfax wears the same pelisse as Elizabeth in P&P? In fact, several of the costumes in these films I’ve seen reused elsewhere. Again, part and parcel of the fun of the low-budget experience. Enjoy your marathon! I’m due for one, myself.

  2. My youngest son got me this collection of movies for Christmas. So far I have watched the outlandish Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility and have just begun working my way through Mansfield Park. I have to say that this particular version of S&S actually let me appreciate Marianne.

    • I really like this Marianne, too, but I’ve always appreciated her, even as she often frustrates me, having been that kind of teen myself. I would love to hear your thoughts on NA, Leenie, especially if you had never seen it before. As Teresa said below, it’s batty.

  3. So many have been blanked out because of copyright! I cannot believe it because they are so old and are only small excerpts. It was a nice trip. I do have to get these for my collection.

    • I know. I’m so frustrated. Some work in some countries, others work in others. All are fully functioning here in Switzerland, where (probably because we have very little copyright protection). Glad you enjoyed the journey, despite the pitfalls along the way.

  4. I absolutely love these versions of JA’s books. Well with the exception of NA which was totally batty and I wasn’t keen on Emma but then I’m not a fan of the book Emma either. I think Persuasion in this set is pretty damn perfect. Loved Ann Firbank in the part. I’ve watched this one many times. Elizabeth Garvie has always been Elizabeth for me too. And I liked the chemistry between her and David Rintoul. He does come across as stiff at times but as I’ve always pictured Darcy this way, I thought he played him very well. I liked MP too but couldn’t take to the guy who played Edmund. I never liked him in anything so that doesn’t help. It was great to revisit these dvds. Thanks for a great post.

  5. I also own this box set Alexa, and I agree with most of what your reviews say, (oh and i am in the USA and I can’t see two of the videos either doe to copywrites). I like and watch P&P alot, I wish David was not so stiff though out, he get just as I would wish him to be just at the end and it looks more natural between he and Lizzy. Ms. Garvey was a great Lizzy I though also. I like the box set version of Emma too, but my favorite Mr. Woodhouse is from the Gweneth Paltrow version, as well as my favorite Mr. Weston. I enjoy S & S here too but I agree the Joana David version is better, it also includes my other favorite actor from Poldark the 70’s version, Robin Ellis as Edward that I so enjoy. I really HATE the version of NA in this set, got though it once and never watched it again UGH! Persuasion in this set is also a favorite, I watch it and P & P the most I think, MP I have only seen twice. I think Fanny is a bit over the top and it irritates me. The production itself is good, we do need another version out there I agree. All in all I love this set, I found it about 6 years ago and treasure it.

    Julie R

    • I think it has brought great joy to many a Janeite, Julie. It took me a long time to come to some sort of equilibrium on this NA (and the 2007 version, which is so awesome). The Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma is my favorite, but I really do like this Mr. Woodhouse. I can see why Emma would dote on him so. I’m very sorry that different countries are having issues with the clips. Unfortunately, there is little I can do about it, other than not to attempt such a thing again.

  6. I have all of these old movies and particularly loved Elizabeth Garvey as Elizabeth because she sang so well and had the most beautiful expressive eyes. Of course Rintoul was a wooden stick, but not his fault. I’ve seen in in other BBCs where he actually smiled and laughed. Great fun. Hope your writing and new publications are going well. Jen Red ?

    • Oh, yes, I liked the adaptations even though they couldn’t include all of the scenes from the books. I just love seeing the clothes, sets and so on and so forth. Of course the more modern adaptations are the best. But since I love anything Austen, I’ll not complain. Jen

      • Hi Jen! My biggest complaint about this Emma is that Jane Fairfax sings so poorly. Elizabeth Garvie performs beautifully in this clip, doesn’t she? And maybe Darcy is a bit of a wooden stick. That smile from Rintoul at the end is priceless (though I do prefer Mr. Firth)..

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these adaptations. I believe I’ve seen all of them except for NA. I don’t remember much from them though so perhaps it’s a time to give them another watch.

  8. I have these BBC productions, too, and watch them pretty regularly. I agree with everything you said, and can add one additional criticism: the female leads in Persuasion and Emma seem a bit miscast because the actresses portraying them look older than I would expect. But I love everything else about these films: the wardrobes, the settings, the bonnets, and all the little details that make them unique and special. My favorite is P&P because it stays pretty true to the novel.Thanks for sharing these clips, Alexa.

    • You’re welcome, Nancy! I agree with you on Emma (though I like her portrayal), but as Anne Elliot is a bit older, I can overlook the age issue a bit more in Persuasion. It’s a great collection, and it has seen me through more than one snowstorm.

  9. Yes, Alexa, I agree with you regarding P&P. (I have not seen some of the others so cannot comment.) I saw the 1980 version of P&P before seeing the 1995 version and absolutely loved it. I particularly loved Lydia in this version. And IMNSHO Elizabeth Garvie is the perfect Elizabeth — I never cared for Jennifer Ehle; too old and jaded-looking whereas Garvie is a wonderful blend of innocence and impertinence, which is how I interpret JA’s portrayal of the character. Originally I thought David Rintoul looked more like Frankenstein’s monster than Mr Darcy, but watching this version again — and after seeing a contemporary photo of a very handsome older Rintoul — I have softened my opinion of him. (My favourite all-time Darcy is Elliot Cowan, of Lost in Austen.) And the 1980 version, with a few notable exceptions, is the closest to canon. I do have a quibble with Jane’s dark hair, tho’!

    Some of the other videos are difficult to find here in USA. Yesterday I was shopping for videos at Oldies.com (no connection except as a customer) and picked up a couple of these older versions. I’m very much looking forward esp to Persuasion with Ann Firbanks. Unfortunately there was no earlier version of Northanger Abbey, which is my favourite JA story; I will, however, pursue it now that I know of its existence and oddity. (I absolutely love the Felicity Jones version and re-watch it frequently.)

    Many videos distributed in Europe are unavailable in USA; many films distributed in USA are likewise unavailable in Europe. This also holds true for other online materials, such as shopping sites. And of course the format is different; in the past I have seen some videos I’d like to get while in Bucuresti, but of course there would be no point in buying them as they will not play on our system.

    The newer versions are certainly more lush, given their bigger budgets and generally improved production capabilities. I did see the collection pictured above in the catalogue but it was unfortunately out of stock, as were several of the individual films.

    Many thanks for posting this, Alexa. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who enjoys the older versions. Now if I could just lay my hands on the 1967 version of P&P — I’ve found one episode on YouTube and nothing at any of the video sellers. Have you ever seen it?

    • I have not seen it, and I spent no small amount of time trying to track down a copy too, several years ago. I was living in the US when I got this boxset, but as said, it was several years ago. Good luck finding them. You can watch Emma, the earlier S&S, and Persuasion on YouTube, if you have the patience for it.

    • Janis, I buy DVDs like that from Europe (through Amazon.com) and use a Region free DVD player (it plays US Region 1, and Europe Region 2).

    • Hi Janis. I think the 1967 version was probably one of the victims of the BBC’s tendency to wipe videotapes for reuse in those days. It was an expensive commodity back then and a number of notable productions lost episodes (Doctor Who is a famous example) or were even lost completely. The piece you found on YouTube is probably the only surviving part of that series. Occasionally, tapes turn up in basements, garages, sheds and the like but they’re becoming fewer and fewer as folk are actively searching for old TV footage of any sort. So that’s why your search of the online retailers drew a blank.

  10. Hi Alexa, I agree with your opinions on the old adaptations. My favorite of the set is P&P, it’s the closest to the original. I love Elizabeth and Jane there, and all the other characters are very good as well. David Rintoul is a bit wooden, but the look he gives Mrs. Bennet at Netherfield, his voice and the way he walks are perfect. The proportions between him and Elizabeth are as I imagined from reading a book. I like the other adaptations, except Northanger Abbey. Mansfield is good, but Fanny is the most boring of all Fannies. 🙂
    I’m glad, somebody else likes the pld, a bit theatrical adaptations (though P&P 1995 is my all time favorite).

    • I agree David Rintoul is stiff, but they look so right together. I like the boring the Fanny, because that’s who Fanny is. The 1995 P&P is my favorite of all the Austen adaptations ever. Another good post topic would be charting how it set a new standard for all those that followed.

  11. A couple of the clips wouldn’t play as they were blocked by the BBC. I too am not a big fan of this Northanger Abbey and I am not a fan of Mansfield Park at all so haven’t seen this version.. I’m afraid I prefer the modern versions of the others especially P&P – I saw this version once a few months ago but I really don’t like David Rintoul as Mr Darcy so would never watch it again. On the other hand my DVD of the 1995 version is almost worn out as I just love it! (I also love the 2005 film!)
    However I do appreciate that everyone is different and they have their own image of Darcy in their mind when reading. In fact I have been reluctant to buy a book if I don’t like the image of Darcy pictured. Thank you so much for this fascinating post Alexa and I am so glad you have had such pleasure from your gift.

    • That’s weird! The clips all work on my end. I wonder if it’s because I’m in Switzerland? So sorry you couldn’t see them, even if these particular versions aren’t your cup of tea.

      • Hi again. I didn’t have time to play the clips this morning, but when I tried just now, I got the same message as Glynis. It mentions BBC Worldwide, so that’s probably why you can play them, Alexa, but not us folks in the UK. I could play P&P, Persuasion and Emma but not the others.

        Elizabeth Garvie makes a wonderful Elizabeth Bennet, doesn’t she? It’s been so long since I saw that version of Emma that I had no recollection of it at all, so I definitely need to get a copy of that. Oh, I’m totally with you on what I call the “Bath Marathon” (and the ending, too) in the most recent dramatisation of Persuasion! The 1995 version is still my favourite, probably because I just love the way they shot “the letter” scene. This one is OK, but I wish they’d stuck to the words as Austen wrote them. It kind of throws me where they used more modern language in this scene, for some reason!

        I’ll be sure to check out your reviews of each later.

        • That’s so frustrating! I’m sorry.

          I really do enjoy the 95 Persuasion, despite the inclusion of the cancelled chapters. I even like the 2005 one, until the marathon, as you aptly call it. Then I want to chuck my shoe at the screen.

  12. These versions of Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey were shown on UK TV just a few weeks ago and I heartily agree with your summary of the characteristics, Alexa. I actually couldn’t continue watching Northanger Abbey – I think I gave up just after the scene at the Roman Baths. The whole thing was just so bizarre and you didn’t even mention the music soundtrack! That apart, all of the others are pretty good, as you say. Think I need to hunt out a copy of this box set as I don’t have any of these on DVD. I saw them all when first broadcast of course but have never had my own copies. Thanks so much for highlighting them for us all.

    • Ha ha! I address the horrible music in the linked review, Anji. They films are worth having, especially as they can be hard to find. It was a great gift. I don’t think I was able to get through NA on my first try, either, but that was many years ago, and now I can appreciate it as an oddity.

  13. I so agree with your thoughts on both Mansfield Park and Nothanger Abbey. I find the others on the slow side and do not enjoy them as much as more modern versions. Mansfield Park is definitely my favourite of the set.

Your thoughts are precious!