Death Comes to Pemberley: BBC adaptation review
If you are as fervent a Jane Austen sleuth as we are here at The Jane Austen Detectives, your Christmas viewing, without a doubt, was the new BBC adaptation of P.D. James’s detective sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley (read our review of the novel here).
It was all the more delightful to see it take the form of the famous mini-series that have become the BBC norm to ensure that full justice is done to the novel in its adaptation – not least because Dr Benjamin Poore, at the recent conference ‘Re-writing the Victorians for Television and Radio’, made clear that the new model he referred to as ‘austerity BBC’ largely precluded such productions for budget reasons: it is cheaper to produce potentially long-running soap opera-style narratives such as Downton Abbey, which make more efficient use of a single set and collection of costumes, than a finite but highly detailed marvel such as the 1995 Pride and Prejudice.
The mini-series format allowed ample time for beautiful landscape shots of the Pemberley estate, and wonderful views of Castle Howard, which was also used as Brideshead in both the 1981 and 2008 adaptations of Brideshead Revisited. The scenery was an excellent environment for the expertly placed silent characters – footmen, postilions, maids – who held an almost Shakespearean relevance in the make-up of the shots.
There was also plenty of opportunity for ironic self-reference between BBC programmes, as this cross-over between the characters of Jane Austen and the plot of the veteran detective novelist P.D. James cast several TV detectives from elsewhere on the BBC, including Trevor Eve, also known as Superintendent Peter Boyd from the cold case series Waking the Dead, as the local magistrate Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, and Tom Ward, or pathologist Dr Harry Cunningham from Silent Witness, as Colonel Fitzwilliam – a significant military promotion from his bit part in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice as one of the officers in Colonel Forster’s regiment.
It is difficult, therefore, to blame the casting for the atmospheric problems of this production – but the inhabitants of this re-imagined Pemberley were not the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice, and this was much more evident in the adaptation than in the novel. Particularly Elizabeth displayed a submissiveness, anxiety and self-doubt that were too un-Lizzy-like to be explained by the tragic circumstances of the murder.
James presents her as a capable mistress of the grand Pemberley Estate, but the Lizzy of the adaptation is too keen to hide behind Darcy, and too hesitant to address her servants – not as individuals, but when they are
gathered in a crowd to receive directions relating to the cancellation of the ball she has, according to the story, hosted annually and very ably for several years.
More worryingly, this made it almost impossible to accept the premise that her marriage had been a happy and fulfilling one. Only for the matter of minutes in the third episode when Lady Catherine appears to offer her very own brand of succour to the stricken family does she return to her ironic and confident self – only to become, after Lady Catherine’s departure, almost a shadow in her own house again.
In light of the promise held out at the close of Pride and Prejudice of Lizzy’s influence for the better on Mr Darcy through her clear vision and ability to laugh difficulties away, and the reforming impulse of her practical nature to make Pemberley more than a site of duty, this raised perhaps realistic complications, but did not allow itself the time to deal with them in a satisfactory way, which harmed the characterisation of Lizzy, everyone’s favourite and the main appeal of the novel Pride and Prejudice, considerably.
Although it was beautifully produced, united the pleasures of a costume drama and a detective story, and allowed many Jane Austen fans to distil some fresh delight out of a doubtless often re-read novel, the adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley felt more like an uncomfortable epilogue than a successful sequel. It raised more issues than it could adequately address, and as a result undermined the main satisfaction of the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, namely the reformation of Mr Darcy by a strong, capable and confident young woman who has been a lasting inspiration since her first appearance in 1813.
Perhaps the constraints of austerity upon the BBC have prevented this derivation from doing justice to a text which remains at once monumental and deeply beloved.
Featured image: Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth in the BBC adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, via The Times.
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