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Northanger Abbey (1987)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Northanger Abbey (1987)
BBC/Arts And Entertainment Network for Screen Two, BBC2, tx. 15/2/1987
90 minutes, colour
DirectorGiles Foster
ProducerLouis Marks
AdaptationMaggie Wadey
Original WorkJane Austen
CinematographyNat Crosby
Original MusicIlona Sekacz

Cast: Peter Firth (Henry Tilney); Googie Withers (Mrs. Allen); Robert Hardy (General Tilney); Katherine Schlesinger (Catherine Moreland)

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Naïve and impressionable teenager Cathy Morland longs for excitement and romantic adventure. Influenced by the bodice-ripping melodramas she reads, she misinterprets the common evils of greed, deviousness, and deception for more sinister and macabre intentions.

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Northanger Abbey (BBC, tx. 1987) was one of a series of feature-length literary adaptations made for the BBC's Screen Two and Screen One series. The series (the brainchild of producer Kenith Trodd) was devised in 1985 as the BBC's response to Channel Four's pioneering move into film production.

Northanger Abbey is a mixture of morality tale and coming-of-age story, which warns viewers not to confuse fantasy with reality, fact with fiction. Jane Austen's 1799 novel satirises the style and content of Gothic stories, and pokes gentle fun at the overactive imaginations of those who read them. Much of this satirical tone is retained in this adaptation, despite the absence of the narrator - the main source of irony in the novel. Maggie Wadey's script successfully imitates Austen's style and voice, and she seamlessly expands and supplements the novel's original dialogue.

To increase dramatic tension and pace, Wadey's script trims the more mundane aspects of the novel, and adds new fantasy scenes, courtesy of heroine Cathy Morland's imagination. Cathy, ripe with repressed sexuality, imagines herself being carried off to be ravished by each of the men she encounters. These scenes parody the gruesome ambience and events of Gothic literature, and amplify the melodramatic atmosphere.

In keeping with the atmosphere of heightened reality, director Giles Foster's staging emphasises the differences between the city and country settings. Mannered and cliquey, Bath society appears absurdly concerned with fashion and clothing (illustrated in a scene where bathers wade in the spa waters fully dressed and hatted). In contrast, life in the lush green countryside appears more wholesome and simple, offering more freedom, and placing less importance on fashion.

The characters and performances reflect these different worlds. Reflecting the garish excesses of Bath, Robert Hardy and Cassie Stuart, give gleefully larger-than-life performances as the story's 'villains'. Katherine Schlesinger portrays country-dweller Cathy as a doe-eyed innocent in white muslin, a fresh daisy to Isabella's vulgarly painted and overdressed hothouse lily. Hero Henry Tilney (Peter Firth), however, seems more instructor than lover, and unfortunately, there is a disappointing lack of chemistry between the two romantic leads.

Northanger Abbey went into production around the time Merchant-Ivory's Channel 4-funded A Room With a View (d. James Ivory, 1985) was enjoying critical and popular success. Presumably the BBC was hoping to capitalise on audiences' renewed interest in period drama.

Louise Watson

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Video Clips
1. Catherine's daydream (2:43)
2. Gothic novels (4:33)
3. Reality versus fantasy (4:19)
Firth, Peter (1953-)
Hardy, Robert (1925-)
Withers, Googie (1917-2011)
Jane Austen on Television