Saturday, January 9, 2016

Adapted Austen: Sense and Sensibility, 1971

Hey, everybody! It’s been a while. 

The reason I’m back is that I still get comments and inquiries about the blog, and one of the questions I’m frequently asked is my opinion of the various Austen TV and film adaptations. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m not a huge fan of these; they manage, in my opinion, to get Austen so very, very wrong so very, very often. In fact, I can think of only two adaptations in the past forty years that I’d call note-perfect. Yet by the same token, there’s generally something to enjoy in most of them; only one, in my opinion, has been an unmitigated, drive-a-stake-through-its-noxious-black-heart disaster. 

But one of the surprises, for me, of having live-blogged the Austen canon for five wonderful years (and later collecting the posts into two bookself-worthy volumes, *ahem*) is that it altered my perceptions of certain aspects of Austen. I have a different appreciation for several of her gifts than I had prior to the project, and a better—or at least a different—understanding of some of the characters. 

So I’m going to try that with the adaptations, as well—starting right here, right now. I had to ponder a while on how best to go about this; should I go back to the early days and take on the various movies and serials as they appeared?—There are advantages to that approach; but ultimately I decided on a modified version. I’ll be looking at the adaptations of each of Austen’s novels in the order in which the novels were originally published. So we’ll begin with Sense and Sensibility, taking the adaptations of that particular novel in chronological order.

Which brings us to 1971, and—who else—the BBC. To the best of my knowledge (and Wikipedia’s), this four-part miniseries is the earliest adaptation of the story, and it comes at the beginning of the Beeb’s golden era, when they vaulted to transatlantic fame for their tireless production of magisterial costume dramas (which included I, Claudius, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Upstairs, Downstairs, the original Poldark, and many others). 

In Sense and Sensibility, we don’t yet find them quite at the top of their game. Budgets, of course, are minuscule; the sets in particular are borderline claustrophobic—it’s like the entirety of the story is being enacted in a series of scrupulously decorated cupboards. That wouldn’t be nearly so distracting if everything weren’t also powerfully overlit; the nineteenth century was all about candlelight, not the harsh fluorescent glare we get here. It’s especially bad when we get to Mrs. Jennings’ country house, Cleveland, whose interior seems to be constructed entirely out of unpainted plaster-of-Paris; you have to adjust the Brightness knob on your TV monitor or risk being struck snowblind.

The costumes come off better; they’re up to the BBC’s typically high standards (Elinor and Marianne’s matching pink-and-sage traveling costumes are just goddamn adorable; you want to hang them on a Christmas tree). But the styling is a problem. As is almost always the case with period dramas, you can take one look at the hairstyles and fix the year almost to the month. There was obviously an attempt to make Ciaran Madden, who plays Marianne, look Regency, but her coiffure seems to call more urgently for a miniskirt and vinyl hip boots. Likewise the early-seventies makeup that gives most of the women, but especially Madden, a kind of lacquered aspect; Marianne, on first glance, might pass for forty. (Madden was just twenty-three at the time.)

Fortunately, whenever she opens her mouth, Marianne’s youth and exuberance come spilling out. The triumph of BBC costume dramas was always in the acting, and Madden is amazing. She’s always sweeping around the frame in a rush of feeling. Whereas Joanna David, as Elinor, embodies the kind of stillness the character demands; she might be a maypole that Madden can’t stop dancing around. David is very pretty, too, in an entirely Elinor kind of way—wide-eyed and clear-skinned; and when she speaks, her cadences are measured and deliberate, but with a lovely delicacy. Best of all, these two actresses manage all this technique without being too showy about it, so there’s a nice, organic quality to their relationship—with each other, and the other characters.

Not all the rest of the cast is equally successful. The men in particular are a disappointment; Robin Ellis, for one, is far too dashing to succeed as Edward, and his stammering and tripping over furniture never remotely convinces. (He found his iconic role a few years later, as the dashing-is-his-middle-name Ross in the aforementioned Poldark.) Likewise, Clive Francis (another future Poldark alum) is far too chilly and remote as Willoughby; you can never quite make yourself believe Marianne would go all-in for someone so creepily guarded. Meanwhile Richard Owens, as Colonel Brandon, gives an utterly neutral performance; the only interesting or memorable thing about him is his wig.

Michael Aldridge, who plays Sir John Middleton, is an absolute trial. He not only overdoes the Devonshire accent (to the point you might check your DVD menu for close-captioning), he bellows all his lines as if he’s really meant to be in another production two soundstages over. As if that weren’t enough to convey Sir John’s natural ebullience, he gestures with great, swinging gusto, and you can sense all the other players carefully staying out of his way lest they get thwacked in the kisser.

Milton Johns, as John Dashwood, fares better; his simpering about his finances (which, as we know, are abundant), is repellent in exactly the right comic way. Unfortunately, his wife, Fanny, who in the novel is a volcanic comic character, barely registers here; nor does Lady Middleton, in the novel a hilariously narcoleptic figure. It’s not really the actresses’ fault; the parts are underwritten—which is, alas, a necessity when you try to sprint through an entire novel in four one-hour episodes; certain characters must have their roles whittled down. (Poor Margaret Dashwood, the younger sister of Marianne and Elinor, has been written out entirely.) That said, Maggie Jones as Anne Steele, the elder of the two Miss Steeles, manages to make the most of her own few scenes.

There are, however, three undisputed comic triumphs in the cast. The first is the most unexpected. As readers of this blog (and the collections, *ahem*) are well aware, one of my few gripes with Austen as a novelist is the blanket way she ignores the servant class, completely missing out the rich veins for comedy she might have mined there. Comb through the entire Austen canon, you’ll find only a handful of lines assigned to housekeepers or valets or their ilk, and even then they’re lucky if they’re given a name. 

In this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, however, the Dashwood family is provided a servant at their cottage at Barton Park. Her name is Mary, played by Esme Church, and she’s an elderly woman who, in the best Austen tradition, seems convinced that if she ever ceases talking she will surely die. From the moment of her first entrance she’s at it, and the other cast members almost have to push her off-camera so they can get on with the plot. Her monologues are hilarious—droning litanies of gossip and misfortune and doleful observations (as when Willoughby carries Marianne home after she’s fallen and hurt her ankle while out walking; Mary says, with obvious relish, “Oh, poor soul, she might’ve dashed her brains out”). 

The second great comic performance is that of Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings. If you’ve read my analysis of Sense and Sensibility, you’ll know that Mrs. J. is my favorite character in the novel, so I’m very jealous of her. She has to be treated well, or in my view the whole adaptation sinks. Routledge (who will later find her iconic role as Hyacinth Bucket in the nineties sitcom Keeping Up Appearances) attacks the role with all the unbridled giddiness and relish we’d expect from the character herself. She almost never pauses for breath, and when she does, she seems to breathe by chuckling. She boosts the energy level of every scene she’s in, and when she’s on-camera you almost don’t notice how badly overlit the production is—because she’s too busy outshining it. Even when she’s in obvious distress, she’s a scream. After Marianne falls deathly ill, Mrs. Jennings spends a good five minutes bemoaning to Colonel Brandon about how very bad it looks for the poor, poor girl; then when Brandon—understandably—tries to excuse himself, so he won’t be in the way at such a delicate time, Mrs. Jennings seizes him by the arm and forbids him to go, wailing, “I need the presence of another calm, cool head, such as yours!” I was weeping.

And finally we come to Frances Cuka as Lucy Steele. Sheer comic genius. She’s only in two episodes, but goddammit, she owns them. Her debut scene—as in the novel—is a tricky one; she has to let Elinor know of her engagement to Edward in a way that is ostensibly innocent—one young woman sharing a confidence with another—while simultaneously conveying that she knows of Elinor’s interest in Edward, and is warning her away from him. You’ve got to be an actress of some skill just to pull off that much duality of meaning; but Cuka manages to make it killingly funny as well. Her comic choice—and it’s a genius one—is to go full Dragon Lady in her body language, while delivering her lines in the sweetest, most lilting tones. She seethes, she scowls, she narrows her reptilian eyes, she holds her wrists in the air as if ready to scratch Elinor’s eyes out; and yet her voice itself is a kittenish purr. I was dazzled. 

Cuka’s gift for physical comedy gives her a leg up in all her scenes—as in the one where Edward’s mother, having been introduced to Elinor and wishing to put her in her place, calls Lucy over so that she can show her the courtesy she’s denying Elinor. Lucy makes this easy to do by stepping directly in front of Elinor to meet the older woman. I mean really, right in front of her—to the point that Joanna David must have gotten a mouthful of Cuka’s up-do. 

But there’s plenty of other physical comedy on offer elsewhere in the series—such as Mrs. Jennings running upstairs to deliver some news, then being too winded to be able to get it out; Lucy taking hold of Edward’s hand in front of Elinor, and Edward cringing away from her as though she’d just clamped him in irons; and a beautifully funny scene in which Marianne, left alone to bid a final goodbye to her childhood home, says, “Dear Norland, farewell,” then looks out the window and adds, “sweet garden,” then clutches the adjacent draperies and cries, “goodbye, curtains!”

So yes, there’s a lot to enjoy here, in spite of the antique production values and the often excessively leisurely pace. (Attention spans must have been much more generous back in the seventies; I found myself growing impatient during the opening credits—which amble on for, like, a week-and-a-half.) 

However…there’s one prevailing drawback, and it can’t be ignored. It’s the writing, which is pedestrian at best and awkward at worst. Denis Constanduros, who scripted all four episodes, has a tin ear when it comes to Regency speak, which is especially unfortunate, because dialogue is Austen’s principal genius. Everything sounds forced, and Constanduros can’t quite shake modern constructions—as when Edward observes, “Everyone doesn’t hunt,” which of course ought to be, “Not everyone hunts.” And there are clunky exchanges, as when Willoughby says, “I shall not be in this neighborhood for another twelvemonth, I am afraid,” and Mrs. Dashwood says, “Not for a year?” (as though showing off her impressive calculating skills) and Willoughby replies, “No, I am afraid not, Madam”—that repetition of “I am afraid” being so unnecessary, so clumsy, so jarring.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it’s not; these are just two examples among a profusion of them. And even worse are the head-scratching alterations Constanduros makes to the plot. For instance, he has Elinor tell Marianne of Willoughby’s unexpected visit to Cleveland as soon as Marianne recovers from her fever. So it makes no sense later, when the slowly recuperating girl tells Elinor that she’d be improving more quickly “If only I could feel that (Willoughby) was not always acting a part when he spoke to me as he did, not always deceiving me.” This is where, in the novel, Elinor reassures Marianne by finally telling her about Willoughby’s confession; of course it is. It makes proper dramatic sense that it should occur here. But in Constanduros’s adaptation, Elinor is reduced to having to remind Marianne that hey, you already know the guy was on the level, because remember what I told you earlier? About him coming to see me? Hm?

Some plot points just don’t get brought up at all; for instance, there’s not a single word spared to explain why Lucy Steele switched her affections from Edward to his brother Robert (who, in any case, makes no real impression as a character). Anyone unfamiliar with the novel will be wondering what the hell happened there.

Fine, it was 1971; television, while no longer a new medium, was still a very transient one…programs were broadcast once, maybe repeated a few months later, and then disappeared into the ether. Denis Constanduros certainly couldn’t foresee that nearly half a century on some snarky TV critic would be poring over his work, repeatedly rewinding passages so that he could transcribe them verbatim and then censoriously tsk-tsking over the result. But my aim here isn’t fairness to him; it’s counsel to you. I’m giving you my assessment of his version of Sense and Sensibility, and advising you as to whether it’s worth your time.

Which I think it is, if only for those few really brilliant comic performances. The rest of it—the crude production values, the dated styling, the stilted dialogue—is easily enough borne. But it’s an odd phenomenon, watching this Sense and Sensibility—one we’ll encounter again, as we discuss further adaptations—that what we have on our hands is a period piece done in a different period than our own. Meaning we’re twice removed from the original material. 

Whereas when we read Austen, there’s no removal at all: we’re immediately, and entirely, immersed in her world. Austen is never dated; she’s always fresh as paint.

Next time: The BBC’s second stab at Sense and Sensibility, from 1981.


  1. YOU'RE BACK!!!!! And this is just brilliant. Can't WAIT for the next one! I am pretty positive I know what your two spot-on productions are, but am still mulling over which one deserves the stake in the heart....

  2. Oh dear. You were impressed by Maddens performance? Really? Unfornately, I was not.

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  4. I love Patricia Routledge! I have never attempted this version of S&S, just looked wrong on so many levels. But knowing that Ms. Routledge plays Mrs. Jennings, I now have new weekend plans. Thank you!

  5. Milton Johns, as John Dashwood, fares better; his simpering about his finances (which, as we know, are abundant), is repellent in exactly the right comic way.

    Who is another "Poldark" alumni.