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A bit wooden and dated, but saved by Tracey Childs
on 15 February 2014
This BBC production was made in 1981, and it looks like it. It looks very wooden next to the thrilling Oscar-winning Emma Thomson version that hit cinema screens 12 years later, and was eclipsed again by the BBC's superb 2003 production (starring Hattie Morahan). Both offer a much more lively and colourful retelling than we get here. The 1981 and 2003 versions stay very close to the novel, though the 2003 version enacts some material that Austen alludes to in Willoughby's back-story.
The acting in this version is fine, given how classics were "done" at the time. Looking at it over 30 years later, the interplay of the characters seems jarringly stilted and prim, with actors making their speeches as if it were Macbeth. It is a thing of its time, not wrong for its time, but its treatment of the subject has long since been abandoned. The central figures - the Dashwood sisters - are so frosty and cheerless, you wonder if the script writers actually read the novel. Where is the sisterly warmth, and the humour? Indeed, where is the "comedy of manners" that is synonymous with Austen? You get none of it here. What you do get is serious moody, with hardly a grin anywhere. Even the romantic scenes are played with tense and desperate angst that seems to come from nowhere.
Tracey Childs, who was a mere 18 at the time, saved the whole thing. She played Marianne with the same simpering moodiness that depresses the whole series, but she was very attractive in 1981. It was what struck me most when I watched it back then as a teenager myself. Her constant gasping earnestness and quivering lip were certainly not in the novel, but thank goodness she did it, because she carried the series along from start to end. Gushing, certainly, but that look was pure period - it could have come straight out of a Reynolds painting.
Quite why she only did two more costume dramas after this, I can't imagine. She did Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) and Jane Eyre (1983), before settling in to appear in just about every popular British TV soap there has ever been since the 1980s. Her looks have faded since then, but in her youth she burned more brightly than just about anyone had a right to hope for.
Stars aside, this series is a worthy production, and a nice addition to a costume drama DVD collection, but it's one that you have to stick with to get into, and it makes no effort to win your affection. It also has one of the most boring opening credit sequences imaginable (the Dashwood sisters rocking very-very slowly on a see-saw, while looked very-very bored at each other). Personally, I'd watch this through, and then watch the 2003 version, otherwise you may find this older one a bit lacking.