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.
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 Childs, Bosco 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.