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Sense and Sensibility (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Sense and Sensibility (1981)
BBC, tx. 1/2-15/3/1981
7 episodes of 30 mins each, colour
DirectorRodney Bennett
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerBarry Letts
ScriptAlexander Baron
Author of the Original WorkJane Austen
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Irene Richard (Elinor Dashwood), Tracey Childs (Marianne Dashwood), Diana Fairfax (Mrs Dashwood), Peter Gale (John Dashwood), Amanda Boxer (Fanny Dashwood), Bosco Hogan (Edward Ferrars)

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The two Dashwood sisters are complete opposites: Marianne is a slave to her emotions, whereas Elinor's head rules her heart. The sisters must find a balance between sense and sensibility before they can find happiness and true love.

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This 1981 adaptation of Jane Austen's novel features a title sequence of the two Dashwood sisters, sensible Elinor and emotional Marianne, see-sawing up and down. The image neatly sums up the core of the novel: the need to strike a balance between head and heart, between sense and sensibility.

As in his later productions, The Darling Buds of May (ITV, 1991) and House of Eliott (BBC, 1991), director Rodney Bennett creates a meticulous but unnaturally perfect period piece. Historical verisimilitude is served by the presence of servants (who comment on the main characters' affairs), and the authentic costumes (with unusual lacing detail) and settings. However, despite faithful adherence to the novel's plot, some of the diversity of Austen's weather has been changed to create a homogeneously sunny world of green lawns and no mud. This alteration is most noticeable in the brightly sunlit scene where Willoughby first meets Marianne, which in the novel takes place in a rainstorm.

Scriptwriter Alexander Baron, veteran of several television adaptations, including The Secret Agent (BBC, 1967) and Daniel Deronda (BBC, 1970), mixes Austen's dialogue with new scenes and dialogue to make Sense and Sensibility more appealing to modern day audiences. These new scenes reveal the characters' motives and emotions, giving audiences a better understanding and ensuring that the love affairs are more emotionally engaging. This tactic is particularly effective in making Edward Ferrars more sympathetic: by allowing him to voice his feelings for Elinor, and by showing Lucy Steele manipulating him (which happens 'off-stage' in the novel), we appreciate the pain of his estrangement from Elinor. Baron also adds a new scene where the seeds of Marianne's feelings for Colonel Brandon are planted on-screen through a shared love of poetry. This foreshadowing makes the outcome far more emotionally satisfying than the novel's brief summary of their relationship.

Baron draws the audience in by mixing dramatic tension, suspense and satirical humour. Much of the pleasure is derived from his sprinkling of barbed witticisms, loaded questions and deliberate misunderstandings, and in the double meanings of seemingly innocent comments; these elements increase the audience's sense of being party to all secrets. The two main performances encourage this sense of audience intimacy: Tracy Childs tracks Marianne's progression from impetuous teenager to prudent and reflective adult, while, in vivid contrast, Irene Richard's cool-headed Elinor is forced to embrace her emotions, her pragmatism faltering in the face of true love.

Louise Watson

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Video Clips
1. Lucy gloats (3:05)
2. An awkward meeting (4:14)
3. A secret revealed (2:49)
Complete fifth episode (25:39)
Persuasion (1995)
Pride and Prejudice (1967)
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Letts, Barry (1925-2009)
Jane Austen on Television