03 September, 2008
By Guy Andrews
"Lost In Austen officially became an idea when Damien Timmer shouted it down the phone to me one summer afternoon. He was sweltering in the depths of some enormous shop in London, failing to keep control of his children; I was doing pretty much the same at an agricultural show, which seemed to consist entirely of bouncy castles. The noise at both ends of the conversation was brain-shrivelling. I was as polite and indulgent to Damien as I could manage under the circumstances, and privately thought that the idea - what I could grasp of it - was utter drivel. Who, for God’s sake, wants yet more gloves, bonnets and heaving embonpoints clogging up their television? Poor Jane Austen. Leave the luckless woman in peace. Cease fanning and drop no curtseys.
Then I got home and began to doodle. My notes (tidied up with hindsight) were:
1. There is a young woman, who has no legitimate reason to be dissatisfied with her lot, but who cannot help feeling nonplussed by the state of her own life.
2. She secretly insulates herself against the indignities she encounters every day by reading Jane Austen.
3. She reads with such intensity that she opens a connection to Austen’s world.
4. She enters that world in the place of Elizabeth Bennet, then finds that she cannot return. She is trapped.
5. She is brave. She dedicates herself to keeping the plot of her beloved book on track - even in the absence of the central character - but everything she does seems to send the story lurching ever more desperately off-piste.
6. What ultimately can she do to save the novel, and herself?
The truth, of course, is that when we set about mangling the Nation’s Favourite Book in the service of this project, the serious work had already been done for us, two hundred years ago.
Is there a better constructed, more balanced, sublimely satisfying story than Pride and Prejudice? As a sequence of dramatic progressions, reverses, false summits and romantic epiphanies, the book cannot be beat. More important for our purposes, the narrative is so robust that it is effectively indestructible.
It would be possible to take infinitely more atrocious liberties with the text than those ventured in Lost In Austen (Darcy the gay Nazi! In space! The musical!). The emotional resolution of Elizabeth’s journey - no matter how compromised - would somehow still have the power to move.
It should be noted that our intention was never to twist Austen’s characters for the sake of twisting. A starting point for us was to identify points of disparity between the perceived text (ie: what we’re all used to seeing in film and television adaptation) and what Austen actually wrote.
For instance: we are used to seeing Mrs Bennet as something of a maladroit ninny.
This has become the dramatic convention for the performance of her character; but it isn’t quite the way Austen made her. On the page, Mrs Bennet is younger than we imagine
- a vivid beauty as a girl - who finds herself socially over- promoted by marriage to Mr Bennet, and made desperate by his fecklessness. The combination of these misfortunes renders her an object of ridicule.
Similarly, Mr Bennet is consistently portrayed on screen as unremittingly twinkly-eyed and charming. Austen’s Bennet enjoys these traits, but there is no mistaking that as a father he is a failure, too selfish to inconvenience himself with the effort necessary to protect his family.
Close reading of the characters’ lives inevitably led to conjecture, some of it intriguing: we understand the broad strokes of Caroline Bingley’s mission to deflect and crush Elizabeth; but what’s driving her, emotionally? Some of it satisfyingly silly: we understand why Austen is generally indisposed to give the servants names. But what about poor Christian-nameless Mr Bennet? What’s he hiding from his author?
I suspect every screenwriter has their own version of the experience that I think of as Hosting The Party.
You assemble your characters in the room, you pour their wine, then take a discreet step back. If your guests shuffle awkwardly and stare accusingly at their drinks, you know the evening’s a disaster.
But if a dozen conversations spring up at once - so that you’re obliged to dart from one to the other, grubby pencil in hand, trying to catch it all - you know the mix is probably right. The people have their own lives and their own things to say for their own reasons, and frankly they’re damned if they need you any more.
I have never scampered about a party like I did on Lost In Austen. Certainly I have never had such intelligent, imaginative and insightful criticism and advice from colleagues when I reported back what I’d heard. And a better, righter cast I’ve never seen.
People may hate it. Belle-lettrists may orchestrate public disembowelments of all concerned. But - even though I didn’t recognize it when it was being waved in my face - Lost In Austen is a good idea and an interesting one, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. I’m very grateful to have been involved."
Starts Wednesday 3 September, ITV1, 9:00pm, for 4 episodes