A FASCINATING INSIGHT INTO THE JOYS AND CHALLENGES OF MAKING PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BY SIMON LANGTON, DIRECTOR OF THE ICONIC 1995 BBC TELEVISION SERIES
There is an old adage that I'm sure many will be familiar with: "A good director cannot save a bad script - but a bad director can ruin a good script"
Of course, some will argue that the results of a good director’s struggle with bad text might be referred to as ‘refreshing’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘revolutionary’, or even ‘heroic’, but most critics are not fooled - it is the script that dictates the collective merits of a piece, however well put together.
When I was first approached about the possibility of directing Pride and Prejudice, I was on the verge of accepting another offer of a new work for ITV. While I was in the last throes of deliberating, I received the scripts for P & P from the producer, Sue Birtwistle, adapted by Andrew Davies, with whom I had worked on Mother Love. The scripts were a revelation in how to adapt a two-hundred-year-old novel for the modern audience and I immediately felt this was the perfect justification for jumping ship onto a different offer.
Interestingly enough, while I was deliberating about committing to Pride And Prejudice, I spoke to a few other friends and colleagues about my decision, some of whom were mildly sceptical (“not that old thing”) and were concerned about the wisdom of committing oneself to a project that would tie one down for the best part of a year. I was also reminded that the BBC had produced several other versions over the last century.
One has to remember that most previous television productions of Pride & Prejudice, right up to the 1982 version, had been recorded using two different systems. All the interior sequences were played out in specially built sets, usually at the BBC Television Centre, and recorded onto electronic tape, while the exterior scenes were shot on 16 mm film (usually anything with a horse in it). Despite heroic efforts on the part of designers and lighting supervisors to conceal this difference, the contrast between the two was often all too apparent.
Paradoxically, the BBC, having invested so many millions into the very expensive studio plant at the Television Centre, were one of the last major organisations to adapt to an all film scenario for drama productions. This was exemplified for me when my twelve-year-old stepdaughter walked through the living room while I was watching an old tape of the previous 1982 production of Pride and Prejudice. She paused for a moment to watch, then strode off to the next room uttering a sort of “Eeugh!”
"Why did you make that noise?" I asked.
"Well," she answered, "it all looks so artificial,” and stalked out of the room.
She, of course, came from a generation that was used to watching most dramas filmed in their natural settings, and would have scant truck with artificiality, however well made they were.
The usual process of setting up six hours of filming one of the most beloved novels in the English language proceeded through the early months of 1994. Sue Birtwistle's brilliant organisational instinct made most of the inherent difficulties normally associated with projects of this size far easier than they deserved to be, and casting, along with finding the best locations, were the main priorities. Given the popularity of the subject matter we had few problems in either area except for the location we wanted for Darcy's house, Pemberley.
The actual house, Lyme Park in Cheshire, had been recently taken over by the National Trust who were reluctant to let a film crew into such a prized possession so soon after acquisition. After much bargaining, they agreed to let us film in the grounds of the estate only, but not the interiors. Ironically, not long after P & P was released, their intake trebled. They even had signposts put up signaling the "Darcy Walk" and of course, the famous lake he swam in.
The whole lake scene has now become something of an iconic moment and was introduced by Andrew Davies as a preliminary to the coming together, as t'were, of Darcy and Elizabeth after their acrimonious split up at the Parsonage some weeks before.
As if to emphasise Darcy's reckless state of mind, we see him cantering home to organise the next day’s arrival of a house party. All hot and sweaty, he decides to stop and take a swim in one of his lakes. Tethering his horse nearby, he sits down to contemplate his lot (and loss) while disrobing. Meanwhile, we see Elizabeth and the Gardiners being shown around the Great Hall at Pemberley by the housekeeper, oblivious of Darcy's early arrival. The Wagnerian tone of the music gives us a clue as to what is about to happen.
Darcy dives into the lake and indulges in a brief moment of hard underwater breaststroke as well as inner (and outer) catharsis. We then cut to him walking away from the lake carrying his outer clothing while a convenient estate worker is leading Darcy's horse. After a brief exchange of instructions from Darcy they part, the estate worker towards the stables with the horse, while Darcy turns toward the house, and the rest is history.
Except that was not what was in the script. Most of it was, except the moment when we first see Darcy emerging with clothes in hand, wearing his see-through, very wet, white voile shirt. I was suddenly aware that the script had not included the horse as Darcy walked down a buttercup-laden slope to the side of the big house. It sounds trivial, but we had seen him arrive by and tether his horse, which could be seen in the rear of the shot grazing by the bank of the lake.
By not including the horse in the later sequence I could see myriads of young daughters (mostly) complaining bitterly to their parents about leaving the horse, all saddled and bridled, munching away in the vast expanse of the Pemberley estate and thus interrupting the whole rhythm of the piece, particularly for those parents unlucky enough to have children who ride horses. It was that thought that prompted me to pressgang the stunt arranger to play an estate worker and even give him a line or two while leading the horse with Darcy.
It was Colin who insisted on the shirt being wetted down for this sequence, as the time of his emergence from the lake would have been much shorter (he did not object to the bucket poured over his head, much to the consternation of makeup and costume). Any thoughts about the transparent effects of water on a voile shirt were entirely absent.
The other 'moment' in the making was, coincidently, from the same sequence but potentially, far more catastrophic. After we see Darcy diving into the cooling lake (actually a stunt man), we see a few seconds of underwater camera shots of him swimming powerfully along, trying to temper the fire in his fevered breast, enough to show us that he is there to purge his tortured soul as there are any number of splendid baths at Pemberley that would suffice for all the other reasons. The sequence was shot at Ealing Film Studios in a 'tank,' which is in effect a deep swimming pool constructed for filming underwater sequences. It is situated in the middle of the floor of the largest studio, and when not in use, is covered by four very heavy, metal-reinforced wooden slabs, thus enabling normal work to be carried out on top of the tank when not in use without falling in.
On the day of the filming, we were joined by an underwater cameraman to shoot Colin as he swam the entire length of the tank (about 40 feet). I came in to inspect the tank about two hours before filming, but had to go to the editing suite while they made the final preparations.
Before I left, I confirmed that all four slabs were to be removed. On my return about two hours later, the usual pre-filming bustle prevailed on the set and final adjustments were being made to the lighting etc. with cameramen in their wet suits ready to go, as well as Colin Firth in his dressing gown and voile shirt talking to the stunt men. Then I noticed, to my immediate consternation that the last slab on the tank was still in place. Thinking that it had somehow become stuck or the crane that lifts it had broken down, I was told there was no need to move it, and therefore the decision had been made to leave it. I was very concerned about safety, but Colin very nobly assured us that he could cope with the offending slab and not to worry. Much against my better instincts, I bowed to force majeure and we proceeded with the sequence. Colin did some early shots first that did not necessitate swimming the full length of the tank and all went well, leaving the full length shot until last.
All too predictably, the momentum of his initial dive took him further than he had calculated so that he rose to the surface while underneath the slab, hitting the metal support cross bar with a sickening thud, right on the bridge of his nose. I, and I’m sure a number of spectators to this event quietly died for a few milliseconds while the worst scenarios flashed through my head - shut down the filming while the insurers sort it out, recast Darcy and reshoot nearly half the footage, or wait until he is fully recovered (with a reconstructed nose).
As it turned out, the collision was not nearly as bad as we had feared and the swelling on Colin's nose was not conspicuous enough to merit any rescheduling.
I was wary, however, of using any profile shots for sometime after!
© Simon Langton, Director of the 1995 BBC Television mini-series, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador
Simon Langton wrote this article exclusively for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation to encourage fans of Pride & Prejudice 1995 to make a donation. All donors are rewarded with a personalised bookplate, with your name written in Jane's own handwriting. If you enjoyed BBC Televisions 1995 Series Pride & Prejudice, please donate to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation today. We are a volunteer organisation with no wages paid to anyone, so you can be confident your donation will be used wisely to buy books and writing materials for communities in literacy crisis, in honour of Jane.
Image credit: BBC TV