06 September, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Lost in Austen"

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

Don't you hate that - when you go to the bathroom in your own house, and you find it not just occupied, but occupied by your favourite character from classic fiction? It happened to me only the other day: I went for a shower and the Cat in the Hat was in there, up to his tricks with my lemon-and-tea-tree shower gel.

Amanda Price, the main character in Lost in Austen (ITV1) has different - some might say more highbrow - literary tastes. So it's Elizabeth Bennet she finds standing in her bath, all bonneted-up and speaking early-19th-century English. But for Amanda, this is excellent news. She is fed up with her dead-end office job, her slobby boyfriend and the general lack of manners in 21st-century London; Lizzie Bennet in the bath is just what she needs.

It gets better still, because she leaves Miss Bennet in her 21st-century bathroom, under her drying 21st-century underwear, and steps through a panel, Narnia-style, into the early pages of Pride and Prejudice and the well-furnished rooms of Longbourn, the Bennets' residence. What's up the road from Longbourn then? Netherfield, of course, plus everything that goes with Netherfield - in particular Mr Darcy's bulging breeches. (Cue lots of girly twittering.) Oh joy!

Not only is Amanda in her favourite novel, but it appears she has the power to steer it in whichever direction she so pleases. So she has a cheeky drunken lunge at Mr Bingley at a party. Will she have a pop at Mr Darcy, too? We'll have to wait until next time to find out.

Much of the humour centres on the differences between then and now. Lippy, landing strips and mobile phones vs psalters, birch twigs and powdered salt to clean your teeth, and faggots for tea. He he he. Meanwhile, in the modern world, Lizzie has fun with the electric light-switch in Amanda's bathroom. Actually, I'd like to have seen more of Miss Bennet in her future. How will the bonnet go down among the hoodies of 21st-century Hammersmith? Will she get drunk on cider and cop off with Amanda's boyfriend in front of Match of the Day? (She might as well, given that Amanda seems to have the hots for everyone at Netherfield.) Will she get her own landing strip? Maybe we'll find out in the next three episodes, but my fear is that we're more interested in Amanda in the past.

It's a bit silly but quite fun, in a jolly, frothy kind of way. Life On Mars basically, but going back a bit further - so lacy frocks and the aforementioned bulging breeches instead of flares and brown leather jackets, tinkling pianos instead of Bowie, and the crunch of carriage wheel on gravel instead of the screech of a cornering Mark 1 Cortina. Life On Mars for girls, in other words, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that women like Jane Austen better than what fellas do.


Thomas Sutcliffe, The Independent

It is a truth universally acknowledged that ITV commissioning editors are absolutely desperate to get a big ratings hit, so they must have been as giddy as a Regency spinster approaching 30 when they first saw Lost in Austen galloping over the horizon. Hybridise the dependable bonnet-and-bustle attractions of Pride and Prejudice with the left-field fantasy of Life on Mars, the thinking must have gone, and surely the result will be happy ever after. Well, they made it to the altar, but that – as any attentive reader of Jane Austen knows – is no guarantee of happiness. The reluctant time traveller in Lost in Austen is Amanda Price, an Austen devotee who uses the novels much as some women use Valium, to smooth out the disappointments of daily life. Sadly, Amanda's lacks romance. When her boyfriend eventually proposed, he accompanied it with a beery belch and used a lager ring-pull tab as the engagement ring. Her divorced mother – now in a steady relationship with Mr Pinot and Mr Grigio – suggested that she might as well settle for what she can get. "You have standards, pet," she conceded warningly. "I just hope they'll help you on with your coat when you're 70."

But Amanda wants more – and got it in trumps when there was a clatter in her bathroom and she discovered Elizabeth Bennet standing there, toying in an enchanted way with the light switch. Elizabeth explained that Amanda's tongue-and-groove panelling concealed a portal connecting her rented Hammersmith flat with one of the most famous households in English fiction. And after she popped through to take a look and the door slammed shut behind her, she found out that if you really sink into a good book, you quickly begin disturbing its consoling predictability. Amanda was thrilled to encounter Mr Bennet – a nice study in exasperation from Hugh Bonneville – and as excited as everyone else about the arrival of Mr Bingley. But then Bingley started getting cow-eyed whenever she appeared and she realised that she had to redirect his affections. Slightly mysteriously, given this ambition, she then launched herself at Bingley at the Assembly Room ball and gave him a thoroughly 21st-century snog.

Not quite enough happens in the way of culture clash. There are little dabs of historical instruction, as when Amanda asked to clean her teeth and was shown a bundle of birch twigs and a block of chalk. And there is some fun to be had with the mismatch between modern clothes and idiom and local manners. But oddly (given that the plot involves a kind of temporal exchange programme) we learn nothing of how Lizzie is getting on in west London, and the drama lacks the edge of terrified uncertainty that gave Life on Mars its extra emotional depth. At worst, Amanda simply seems exasperated that she can no longer get a mobile-phone signal, which may not be quite enough to persuade us that she really thinks this is happening at all.


Tim Teeman, The Times

Carpers will say you can have too much Jane Austen, but Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen is a funny, clever breeze. Amanda (Jemima Rooper) is a Pride and Prejudice fanatic, a dreamer with a loser boyfriend. One day Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) appears in her bathroom — through a door in her wall lies the world of the novel. Amanda ends up with the Bennets, and Elizabeth in present-day Hammersmith. It is a culture-clashing, time-clashing Walnut Whip of frothy nonsense with the intriguing proposition that Amanda may be able to change the outcome of her fictional touchstone. But what’s Elizabeth getting up to in Hammersmith?


James Walton, Daily Telegraph

This is not a sentence that you often hear – but it’s been a good week for drama on ITV1. After The Children’s highly promising start on Monday, last night brought us the first episode of Lost in Austen. Of course, as many people have already spotted from its shameless blending of Pride and Prejudice with Life on Mars, the series does come with a distinct whiff of commercial calculation. Yet, so far at least, this only goes to show that commercial calculation can sometimes work rather well. The result can’t be called profound. Nonetheless, it does triumphantly achieve its main aim of being enormously good-natured fun.

Jemima Rooper plays Amanda Price, a Jane Austen addict, who began last night living a typical (harsher critics might say stereotypical) twentysomething life in Hammersmith, complete with rubbish boyfriend burping away on the sofa. But then her literary heroine, Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) suddenly stumbled through a door in the space-time-fiction continuum to pitch up in the bathroom. When Amanda went through the other way, without Lizzie, the door inevitably locked behind her, leaving her stranded in the Bennet family home.

Admittedly, some viewers may have felt this was a bit implausible. There is, however, one obvious counter-argument: who cares? On reflection, Life on Mars possibly wasted too much effort trying to make the time-travel both believable and significant. Here, once Amanda’s adventures were under way, it never seemed remotely important how she got there.

The first family member she met was Mr Bennet, who allowed Hugh Bonneville to demonstrate once again that no other actor – except perhaps Jim Broadbent – can do benevolent perplexity quite so well. From their conversation, Amanda realised that she’d arrived just at the start of the novel, with Mr Bingley newly installed at Netherfield: a fact instantly confirmed by the sound of female hysterics off-stage. (“My wife,” explained Mr Bennet resignedly.)

After that, the culture clashes were soon cheerfully piling up. At the Bingleys’ ball, where Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) put in a suitably brooding performance, Amanda made the mistake of necking too much Regency punch, popping outside for a fag and snogging Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) himself – who responded with an astonished but grateful “Gosh!” Now, duly mortified, she’s trying hard to make everything turn out as it does in the novel.

Through all of this, Lost in Austen manages the neat Life on Mars trick of showing the qualities and drawbacks of both eras. Amanda may think she prefers the old courtesies – at least when she’s not been on the punch. The programme itself gently reminds us how limited the Bennet girls’ lives are. It also throws in plenty of nice little touches. Mr Bennet, for example, was able to look more perplexed than ever when Amanda said Hammersmith is in London, rather than a small village several miles outside it.


Bingethink said...

Great idea – great cast – looked good – big question for me at the heart of it.

A girly Life on Mars would have been great – to bring a high concept idea to a Britsh TV costume drama is a pretty exciting prospect, and an example of the slightly “out there” commissioning policy for ITV 9 o’clock drama recently – The Palace, Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, etc.

But a girly Life On Mars this was not, because what drove the story of Life on Mars wasn’t the 70’s culture clash, or Gene Hunt, or the - pretty basic - police plots, but the fact that poor, nice, pasty Jon Simm is trapped in this scary world and he wants to go home. Everything he does is dedicated to this aim. (See also: The Wizard of Oz , Back to the Future).

What’s Amanda’s equivalent take on this? “How queer. I’ve become trapped in the plot of a Jane Austen novel.” And because she doesn’t really question it (despite already establishing the medium of unneccessary voiceover in which to voice her questions), her plight immediately loses a whole chunk of intensity. I mean, ok, it’s just a light and frothy story - we know it’s all a conceit to have a girly Life on Mars - but Amanda shouldn’t act like she knows that too. Is she doesn’t care, why should we care?

Compare with:

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly has to get his parents to kiss at the High School dance, then drive a De Lorean at one hundred and whatever it is miles an hour into a lighting strike etc etc… or he’ll fade out of existence.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has to travel to Oz, where the Wizard might be able to find her way home, or she’ll be hunted down by the Wicked Witch.

In Life On Mars, Sam Tyler has to solve the crimes in the 70s, to leave this mightmare world and get back home.

In Lost in Austen, she decides to “keep the plot of her beloved book on track” because…?

For me, this restricts Amanda to wandering through the story, rather than driving the story.

OK, so I’m looking at my watch. Because what we end up with is one of those straight-to-DVD Disney sequels – Little Mermaid 3, The Return of the Lion King - Which is: a slightly altered version of a well-loved tale. And it’s all quite nice and jolly, but allows your mind to wander to ask such questions as: Is Alex Kingston doing her pitch-perfect Alison Steadman impression in a knowing, meta-textual way, or a derivative, stealy way? If Mr Bingley falls in love with her, and not Jane then… so what?

So, then:

Amanda gets upset with herself for getting drunk and trying to snog Mr Bingley, because it sullys the purity of the Austen romantic ideal. I think that’s a perfectly correct theme to explore in this story.

But she’s a 21st century single girl. Can’t she sully the romantic purity in a more dramatic, post-watershed, televisual way? And can her action in doing this be more fully integrated into the plot?

More like this:

How about making her arrival into Austen-world more intriguing because, when she arrives, it’s clear the Bennett’s were expecting her. Elizabeth had planned her visit – laid out appropriate clothes on the bed for her, briefed her sisters about her – a long-time correspondent from far-away Hammersmith. So they know things about her. And maybe don’t approve of what they know.

And days go by, just like in the real episode (and a lot of this is in the real episode , but not structured in ther way to make the most dramatic story) except now, when she goes for long walks in the country, or quizzes the others about life in Austen times, she’s not doing it as a merely curious day-tripper, but as a prisoner, trying to find her way back home. (And does her Penguin copy of P&P help her as a reference, or could she find strange alterations – like Back To the Future’s fading photo – that suggest that she is changing the Austen reality?). Anyway, it’s cold here, and strange, and she doesn’t know who to trust, or what to do…

And at a low, at the party she gets drunk, and lonely. And when she kisses Mr Bingley, it’s the only human warmth she’s found here. But then he responds…!

What if she wakes up next morning with a hangover, and Jane Bennett’s combing her hair, and she realises that she’s fucked her meta-fictional sister’s future husband. That’s a dilemma!

Especially when the note under the door from the future/reality is not to Mr Bennett, but to her: “My dearest Amanda, greetings from fragrant Hammersmith. Blah blah blah. I have discovered in the most incredible way which I am at a loss to relay to you just how we may return to our rightful times. All you have to do is make sure the events of the novel follow their rightful course. Piece of piss. Then everything will be OK by the end of episode 4.”

But Amanda has already fucked up big time by her selfish animal 21st century lusts.

That’s a better cliffhanger into episode 2, isn’t it?

Robin Kelly said...

I can't quite see how it can go on without some form of what you suggest; the irony is fun but can only take you so far. I like the idea of introducing some jeopardy so she has to make sure the novel stays on track before she can get back.

Although this is complicated because they've chosen to send one of the fictional characters to modern Hammersmith and so it can't really stay completely on track and raises the question of what happens to this other character.

However, Life on Mars did over-use the trapped in a scary world thing as the audience didn't need all of it and those taking it seriously were disappointed that a lot of it was just quietly dropped and not taken further. (It's significant that after an extremely expensive failed pilot the US team remaking it have asked permission to change how the time travel happehs) It's about trying to find the right balance.

The viewing figures of Lost in Austen were disappointing and I think it's because P&P fans didn't want to watch what they thought might be a travesty and non P&P fans thought they wouldn't know what was going on.

A more dramatic cliffhanger like you suggest could make sure those that tuned in returned and recommended so the audience grew (like Mistresses did). Although this might happen anyway, to be fair, as light and frothy might be enough.

Time travel is a great genre for fun culture clash stuff which says something but I would have kept it simple and have the main character be a fan of the books and the period but visits a real family from that period not a fictional one. Likewise I would show the real Regency woman and her adventures in modern London.