★ Well, if you can believe it, the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic romantic novel, Pride and Prejudice, made its TV debut 20 years ago today! Featuring that Colin Firth moment, the series caused an absolute sensation when it first aired in 1995, made breeches cool again (not literally, of course) and helped to breathe new life in the costume drama genre. Coming early in a whole raft of period television and film adaptations, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), Emma (1996) and Jane Eyre (1996) to name but a few, it could be argued that it outclassed them all and invaded popular culture in a way the others only dreamed of.
The simple fact I can call it that Colin Firth moment, and you know what I’m talking about is testament to that fact. If you somehow don’t know what I’m referring to, you have to go watch this series immediately to remedy this most unfortunate gap in your knowledge. Seriously, stop reading and go watch it.
For everyone who has seen it, let’s have a look back at a true BBC masterpiece.
Given how well loved it is, it seems safe to say that the BBC surpassed themselves with this particular adaptation, and I think that is due in no small part due to their exquisite casting choices. Whether it’s the lovely yet feisty Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie (above), the brooding intensity of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, the fluttering hysteria of Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet, or the haughty snobbery of Anna Chancellor as Caroline Bingley, I feel like every part could not have been more perfectly cast. A particular mention has to go to David Bamber for an absolutely outstanding turn as the oily, nauseating Mr Collins (below) – an undeniably obnoxious character that Bamber carried off with aplomb.
The entire series is also a veritable feast for the eyes – beautifully filmed and with incredible care and attention to detail which really helps to establish the characters and their relationships. Take, for example, the distinct visual styles of the five Bennet sisters, as costumed by Dinah Collin.
Jane, the eldest sister, is serene and gentle in character, with her ornate Grecian inspired hairstyles (that were all the rage in the 1810s) and softly-hued, delicately adorned clothing reflecting her mild temperament. Lizzie is more spirited and lively, with Collin adding splashes of stronger, darker colours to her wardrobe (the tan and dark green Spencer jackets are good examples), and using simpler garments to reflect her more active nature. Although Lizzie’s look is still very put-together, it is less exacting and precise than Jane’s.
When it comes to the younger Bennet sisters, Mary’s prudish and sanctimonious character is alluded to with unbecoming clothing styles and fabrics, as well as distinctly unflattering low-maintenance hairdos. Kitty’s look is a quite nondescript, with a pretty yet simple wardrobe and neat hair, which perfectly reflects how easily she is overpowered and overshadowed by Lydia’s far more forceful personality. As the youngest of the sisters, aged only 15, Lydia herself is an absolute whirlwind, with flirty dresses in a chaotic variety of patterns and colours (pink seems to be a favourite), and her hair a lopsided mass of unruly curls – a look that mirrors her chaotic and unruly behaviour.
I don’t want this post to turn into a lengthy essay on the merits of Dinah Collin’s costuming (believe me, I could go on for hours), so I won’t say too much more on the subject, other than the fact the Bingley sisters have an absolutely fierce wardrobe between them. Jewel-coloured silks, exotic turbans, feathers and opulent jewellery. Just wow. And does anybody do a look of disdain better than Anna Chancellor?!
All of the gorgeous costumes are set off beautifully against a backdrop of some truly stunning locations, including the rugged Peak District, the charming village of Lacock doing duty as Meryton, and the elegant Luckington Court in Wiltshire as the Bennet family home of Longbourn. While the wealthier Bingley family reside at the undeniably impressive Netherfield Park (Edgcote Hall in Oxfordshire), it’s the Darcy residence of Pemberley that is the real star of the show. Interior scenes were shot at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, but the sweeping exterior vistas were filmed at the stunning Lyme Park in Cheshire, and it is there that the iconic lake scene takes place…
The moment that made a million hearts flutter. Considering this scene isn’t actually in the novel, the BBC were taking a real risk including it in the series. It’s the kind of ‘out of thin air’ addition that audiences either absolutely love or hate, and in this case, oh boy did they love it! With ‘Darcy fever’ hitting its peak, the day after the episode aired, the lake scene was the talking point in workplaces across the country. The mother of one of my friends even took a picture of Colin Firth in his wet shirt out of the TV guide, and stuck it to the inside of her kitchen’s pantry door – and it’s still there all these years later!
By the time the series wrapped up on 29th October, the nation was utterly hooked. The final episode garnered a 40% share of the UK audience, being watched by almost 11 million people. With almost universally positive reviews, the series was nominated for a slew of awards both in Britain and the United States, with Jennifer Ehle receiving a BAFTA for Best Actress. When the series was released on VHS in the UK, the entire first run of 12,000 copies sold out within only two hours of release, with 70,000 copies being sold by the end of the week!
Twenty years on, this wonderful series has lost none of its appeal and is still highly regarded as an outstanding adaptation of one of the world’s most beloved books. In the 200-years since the novel was first published, there have been numerous stage, television and film iterations of the Lizzie and Darcy romance, but it was screenwriter Andrew Davies’ inspired addition of the swoon-worthy lake scene that turned this particular version into a true cultural phenomenon.