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Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Pride and Prejudice (1980)
BBC2, tx. 13/1-10/2/1980
5 x 55 minutes, colour
DirectorCyril Coke
ProducerJonathan Powell
ScriptFay Weldon
Author of the Original WorkJane Austen
MusicWilfred Josephs

Cast: Elizabeth Garvie (Miss Elizabeth Bennet); David Rintoul (Mr Darcy); Moray Watson (Mr Bennet); Priscilla Morgan (Mrs Bennet); Osmond Bullock (Mr Bingley); Natalie Ogle (Lydia Bennet); Tessa Peake-Jones (Miss Mary Bennet); Clare Higgins (Miss Kitty Bennet); Judy Parfitt (Lady Catherine De Burgh)

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The five daughters of Mr and Mrs Bennet are all in want of a husband. Elizabeth, second eldest and cleverest of the five, keeps an observant eye on her sisters' prospects, but her own are to be found where she least expects.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Fay Weldon's five-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the most faithful screen version to date of Jane Austen's original novel. Elizabeth Bennet is presented as the central character (it was her face alone that adorned the cover of the VHS release), and the unfolding of the plot is seen always from her viewpoint. For Alistair Cooke, writing in 'A decade of Masterpiece Theater', "this adaptation demonstrated a fine ear for the spare, exquisite language of the original, and a ready talent for taking Jane's maliciously cheerful view of social pretension" - it also reminds us how funny the novel is. Weldon faced the usual problem of how to incorporate the authorial voice, and opted to introduce it into lines of dialogue or in voice-over, an approach borrowed by many later Austen adaptations.

Where Weldon was at her most radical was in her treatment of Mr and Mrs Bennet. She preserves the irony of showing, in a story where marriage is everyone's goal, the truly unhappy and unequal union between them. Her version of Mr Bennet retains his sarcastic humour but adds an alarming bad temper and an ill-disguised contempt for his wife. Mrs Bennet is allowed to be the still pretty and vivacious woman with whom Mr Bennet presumably fell in love, and although annoying and ceaselessly talkative, she is not quite the foolish creature of the novel - often what she says actually makes sense. Weldon allows her several sotto vocce criticisms of Mr Bennet which are not in the original, and there is a general air throughout of the women resignedly putting up with the often strange behaviour of the men in their lives. Otherwise Weldon takes remarkably few liberties with the text.

Although it lacked the big budget production values of later versions, the series was very well cast, boasting early appearances by Clare Higgins (Kitty) and Tessa Peake-Jones (Mary); a surprisingly young Lady Catherine in Judith Parfitt, whose haughty froideur and angular elegance make her a plausible blood relation of David Rintoul's unbendingly proud and aloof Darcy; and the wittiest and sprightliest Eliza (Elizabeth Garvie) yet seen on screen. Slow, stately and studio bound it may be, with none of the smouldering romanticism or jarring modernity which have swamped later versions, but it endures surprisingly well.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. A truth universally acknowledged (3:32)
2. A most disagreeable man (4:42)
3. Mr Collins' proposal (5:12)
Pride and Prejudice (1980) Episodes 1 and 2 (1:52:26)
Pride and Prejudice (1967)
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Weldon, Fay (1931-)
Jane Austen on Television