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Mansfield Park (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Mansfield Park (1983)
BBC TV/Lionheart TV for BBC2, 6/11-11/12/1983
6 x 50 min, colour
DirectorDavid Giles
ProducerBetty Willingale
Dramatised byKen Taylor
From the novel byJane Austen
MusicDerek Bourgeois

Cast: Sylvestra Le Touzel (Fanny Price); Nicholas Farrell (Edmund Bertram); Anna Massey (Mrs Norris); Bernard Hepton (Sir Thomas Bertram); Jackie Smith-Wood (Mary Crawford); Robert Burbage (Henry Crawford); Angela Pleasence (Lady Bertram)

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When Fanny Price arrives at her snobbish Uncle's country estate, she is treated more like a servant than a niece. The one person she can turn to is her cousin Edmund. But when Miss Crawford arrives in Mansfield Park, Fanny's love for Edmund seems doomed.

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Mansfield Park has been adapted less frequently than Jane Austen's other novels, possibly because a novel that is seemingly about the triumph of virtue over worldliness has lost some of its appeal in our more secular times. One of the biggest obstacles facing scriptwriter Ken Taylor was how to make the two main characters, the earnest Fanny Price and devout Edmund Bertram, sympathetic to modern audiences. Taylor and director David Giles (a veteran of many literary adaptations, including the BBC's 1971 Sense and Sensibility) wisely chose to emphasise the Cinderella elements to gain the audience's sympathy: sweet but destitute Fanny, mistreated by her rich cousins, wins her Prince Charming.

It is the arrival of the worldly Crawford siblings that brings to life both the novel and the adaptation. Their attractiveness and wittily cynical humour acts as a refreshing contrast to Fanny and Edmund's moral righteousness. While we can never be sure of Austen's original intentions, the Crawfords' flawed but obvious appeal seems to suggest that she had a certain sympathy for their more liberal outlook. While their behaviour and views could not be condoned at the time of writing, it's possible that by presenting two wildly contrasting positions she is urging the reader to find a more balanced middle ground. The BBC adaptation mirrors this apparent duality by giving the Crawfords all the most amusing lines, while establishing that their immorality is unacceptable within the story's period setting. In both novel and adaptation, the ostensibly 'happy ending' is Fanny and Edmund's rejection of the Crawfords for their own shared faith and integrity; at the same time, however, we are slyly encouraged to celebrate the Crawfords' lucky escape from marital partners who would suppress and inhibit them.

Though the Crawfords have been given a modern gloss, other elements (settings, characters and particularly the dialogue) remains faithful to Austen's novel. Clearly, an adaptation that deals with virtue, morality and faith needs to be firmly established in its period setting, otherwise the spiritual aspects would ring hollow. Giles and Taylor need to ensure that the awkward moral dilemma that forms the heart of the story (Edmund's rejection of his adulterous sister) can be understood by modern audiences within the ideology of its time. Fortunately, such sombre issues are leavened by Austen's trademark satire and comic interplay. Especially enjoyable are the conversations between the wonderfully self-centred Mrs Norris and the childlike Lady Bertram.

Louise Watson

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Video Clips
1. A misunderstanding (3:16)
2. Ridicule (3:24)
3. Growing up together (1:08)
4. Mrs Norris (2:58)
5. New neighbours, new blood (3:46)
Complete first episode (50:36)
Jane Austen on Television