Six Jane Austen tales on PBS Masterpiece Theatre

Six Jane Austen tales on PBS Masterpiece Theatre

Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield park, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice

As a special treat to keep your winter blues at the doorstep, PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre is presenting six of Jane Austen’s enchanting tales of sex and society in early 19th century England.

Starting January 13, 2008, Masterpiece Theatre will feature new productions of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. The terrific BBC/A&E productions of Emma (1997)starring Kate Beckinsale, and Pride and Prejudice (1996) with Colin Firth will also air. An entirely new bio-drama, Miss Austen Regrets, based on Austen’s own bittersweet love life, rounds out the dance card.

Every Sunday evening for four months, we can curl up and relish these timeless tales in which Miss Austen’s unique maiden-heroine overcomes her own shyness, her boorish relatives and duplicitous friends to find love and happiness while maintaining her dignity and intellect. What could be better?

For avid Jane Austen fans, seeing a new production is always problematic. If one loves a book or already has a favorite film/TV/DVD version, it is hard to adjust and appreciate a new script, cast and point of view. But, all in all, the new productions hold up reasonably well. The performances are largely first rate. Award winning writer Andrew Davies, who adapted Bleak House for the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre production, wrote the screenplays for Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility (as well as the BBC/A&E versions of Emma and Pride and Prejudice). The costumes and the Bath and British countryside locations were a pleasure to see.

I did bristle at the plot modifications in the new productions that unnecessarily “dumbed-down” the novels, perhaps in an effort to make them more palatable to a larger younger audience. Many of the characters lacked the nuance and subtlety of Austen’s novels. Generally, the new productions are long on plot and short on the social and political commentary that lifts Austen above the ordinary storyteller. But even a lightweight Jane Austen is much better than anything else you’ll see on the tube.

Sally Hawkins (Little Britain) is wonderfully expressive as Anne Elliot, who at 27, is destined to spend a lonely spinsterhood at the service of her selfish family, including her pompous spendthrift father, superbly played by Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Eight years earlier her family had persuaded her to refuse the proposal of dashing, but poor and untitled, Captain Wentworth, well played by super-hunk Rupert Penry-Jones (Casanova). Happenstance brings them together again, but now Captain Wentworth is rich as well as handsome (what my mother would have called “a good catch”). But is he still carrying the torch for Anne?

Because this new production is only 90 minutes long, parts of the plot were compressed; this was done well and the story is still cohesive. The last two scenes were inexplicably altered from the novel, perhaps to make them more dramatic and visually interesting. The addition of a “running to love” scene in which Anne runs to catch up with Captain Wentworth is particularly out of character. (For more on “running to love” scenes, see

Adapted by Simon Burke. Directed by Adrian Shergold. Executive Producer Murray Ferguson. Executive Producer for WGBH, Rebecca Eaton. Produced by David Snodin. A Clerkenwell Films production for ITV in association with WGBH/Boston.

In this new production of Northanger Abbey, Felicity Jones (Meadowlands, gothic novel addict Catherine Morland, who is invited to Bath for the season. There she meets friends, both faithful and faithless. When invited to a medieval country house that appeals to her most lurid fantasies, she becomes close with the younger son on the estate, Henry Tilney, played by JJ Field (The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton). Unfortunately, their romance is unceremoniously cut short by Henry’s father, the avaricious General Tilney.

Northanger Abbey is Austen’s parody of gothic fiction, but this 90 minute production actually enlarges and glamorizes the gothic aspects of the plot to the point where it was no longer a parody…it was merely gothic. Parts of the novel were pointlessly exaggerated and altered. For example, alterations to the ending make General Tilney appear more heinous and Henry’s actions seem more heroic.

Since Northanger Abbey gets my vote as the least satisfying of Austen’s novels, it is hard for me to get terribly excited about this production, but the performances are first rate, the plot moves along swiftly, the production values are first rate and the ending is of course happy.

Adapted by Andrew Davies. Directed by Jon Jones. Executive Producers Andy Harries, Charles Elton. Executive Producer for WGBH, Rebecca Eaton. Produced by Keith Thompson. A Co-Production of Granada and WGBH/Boston

Billie Piper (Doctor Who, The Ruby in the Smoke) stars as Fanny Price, the poor girl who is sent to live with her rich relatives at Mansfield Park. At first, Fanny is extremely shy and is treated little better than a servant. As she matures, however, even her fatuous relatives come to value her good nature, rationality and quiet strength of character.

She has her heart set on her cousin Edmund Bertram, sensitively played by Blake Ritson (Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). But he, like most of the Mansfield Park residents, is swept up by new neighbors, the Crawfords, a sophisticated brother and sister whose designs on Fanny and Edmund may not be honorable.

Billie Piper was badly miscast in the role of Fanny Price. Her bouncy sensuality and her disheveled obviously dyed blonde hair are jarringly incompatible with the poor and wan girl of the novel. It also makes it hard for the audience to accept that Edmond could remain indifferent to her for so long.

But the basics of the story are here to enjoy if you have a good attitude.

Adapted by Maggie Wadey. Directed by Iain B. MacDonald. Executive Producers George Faber, Charles Pattinson. Executive Producer for WGBH, Rebecca Eaton. Produced by Suzan Harrison. A Co-Production of Company Productions and WGBH/Boston

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Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for