I have been watching a lot of BBC Television lately. This surge of anglophilia was occasioned by my wife's return from Walmart with two collections of "BBC Video Classics" tucked into a plastic shopping bag. The first, "The Charles Dickens Collection," contained dramatizations of Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Bleak House, Mrtin Chuzzelwit, and Oliver Twist; the second, "The Jane Austen Collection," featured—naturally enough—adaptations of her six complete novels.
Working my way through the latter, while folding laundry or stuffing envelopes, proved both illuminating and disappointing. The first thing you need to know is that both collections comprise BBC's first round of Masterpiece Theatre-like forays into high literature. All of the productions appeared in the 1970s and 1980s and were shot, to their detriment, as video.
Now let me be clear: I'm an unapologetically avid admirer of Austen. But no amount of avidity can forgive the woodenness of these productions. The stilted deliveries, passive blocking and not infrequent lack of dramatic subtext are fittingly complemented by the flaccid camera work, wan indoor lighting, and general absence of sound engineering. (Everybody speaks with a faint hallway echo).
While hardly distraught, I was, well, dismayed. Did Austen translate that badly? BBC productions clearly have the luxury of length, the lack of which in Hollywood productions was a continual source of frustration for me. In Emma Thompson's rendering of Sense and Senibility (1995), there is no midnight visit by the faithless but regretful John Willoughby, seeking forgiveness for his caddish behavior; in Keira Knightly's Pride and Prejudice (2005), scenes in Rosings Park and Pemberley are painfully abridged, while several characters were altogether eliminated.
Perhaps the faults I perceived lay in the dramatizations (the British term then for adaptation). I had started with Pride and Prejudice, a personal favorite. This BBC version had the distinct honor of being adapted for video by British writer Fay Weldon. Yet despite the seeming coup in selection of dramaturg, the execution was pale at best. It certainly did not compare favorably to BBC's 6-part reworking in 1995 with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. And yet somehow, I did receive some modicum of pleasure, so I turned to my next favorite novel, which I had recently read: Persuasion.
Ack! It was unwatchable. The blind were surely leading the blind when someone cast 38-year-old Ann Firbank as the 27-year-old Anne Elliot. Even worse, that someone then set her against the much younger looking Valerie Gearon (who was 34 but looked 25!), who played Anne's elder sister, Elizabeth Elliot. The overall effect was creepy, with the younger sister, the romantic object of the novel, looking like the older sister's mother!
The real test ultimately proved to be Sense and Sensibility because here I could compare BBC and Hollywood productions and directly. (I owned the 1995 movie version.) Now I could assess more intelligently what worked and what did not. The differences were palpable. Despite the inevitable contractions that movies impose on their novelistic sources, both adaptations shared a number of identical lines, demonstrating by contrast what real talent can deliver. Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet earn their reputations for subtlety and expressiveness when compared to the weirdly vapid and at times uninspired verbiage of the BBC production, which no doubt explains Masterpiece Theatre's reputation among some Americans in the '70s and '80s as a waste of cathode rays.
And yet…and yet, I can't seem to give up my commitment to Austen, even when done badly. To be blunt, as dramatizations of literary classics go, these BBC "video classics" suck—but not so much as not to be worth the watching. So is this what makes a "classic" a classic? Somehow the stories still compel even as the productions repel. There is a mystery here that I can't explain.
But forgive me. I see I have a load of laundry on the bed and Mansfield Park is in the DVD drive, so I best get back to work…