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?
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.