Wednesday, September 7, 2011

BBC, We Thank Thee for Great TV

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young woman in possession of a good education, must be in love with Mr. Darcy. For centuries he has embodied the literary epitome of a romantic hero – handsome, wealthy, and aloof with an underlying sense of integrity and compassion. Consider every thinking woman’s wildest fantasies effectively fulfilled. Still, something was missing: Despite his supposed perfection, Mr. Darcy could be envisioned only in our collective imagination.

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All this changed with the 1995 BBC television miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. Sure, there had been previous films based on the novel, but this was the first version to visualize the book for modern audiences. Though some characters appeared slightly miscast (in particular, Susannah Harker as Jane), Jennifer Ehle gave a compelling lead performance as the strong, independent Elizabeth Bennet we had come to know so well. And when Colin Firth stepped onto screen as Mr. Darcy, hearts stopped around the English-speaking world. 1995’s Pride and Prejudice ushered in a new era of literary enjoyment – the age of the BBC adaptation.

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Since that widely celebrated series, the BBC has produced some truly great television programming for well-read fans. Another Jane Austen series that immediately comes to mind is 2009’s Emma, starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. That version makes excellent use of the gorgeous English landscape, presenting a classic story in crystal-clear modern high definition.

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Even more modernized is the 2010 series Sherlock, which actually re-imagines Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in contemporary London. As the titular character, Benedict Cumberbatch utilizes logic and cell phones to solve crimes, while Martin Freeman’s John records the stories in his online blog. It is a credit to the quality of production that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans have embraced Sherlock – the series remains true to original characterizations and spirit despite its updated setting.

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But my favorite recent BBC adaptation is 2004’s North and South, a P&P-esque romance based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel. As a young American who read only Dickens, Austen, and Brontë in school, I had never actually heard of Gaskell until I came across North and South on YouTube. The four-part series completely blew me away; its riveting plot and melancholy north-England atmosphere strike a deep emotional cord. Daniela Denby-Ashe brings an honest likability to the heroine Margaret, and Richard Armitage channels his inner Darcy as John Thornton, the mill-owner with whom Margaret inevitably falls in love. Although North and South may be less well-known than other staples of British literature, its television adaptation has become an instant classic with BBC viewers.

BBC, thank you for bringing our favorite books to life, for surprising us with creative dedication, for introducing a new generation to the magnificence of English literature, and – most importantly – for that wet shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice. May you continue to define classy entertainment for years to come.

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