20 Fastidious Facts About BBC’s Pride and Prejudice
Though Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been beloved for more than 200 years (it was originally published in 1813), part of its current legacy—and one very famous image of a sopping wet Mr. Darcy—can be attributed to the BBC’s 1995 miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Here are 20 things you might not have known about the iconic period piece, which launched the career of Colin Firth—and popularized a very specific type of not-so-proper erotica.
1. THE BBC DIDN’T SEE COLIN FIRTH AS MR. DARCY.
Though producer Sue Birtwistle, who had worked with Firth on 1985’s Dutch Girls, was pushing him for the lead, not everyone was convinced. In 2013, Birtwistle recalled how BBC executive Alan Yentob “rang me when I was driving in a snowstorm to tell me that Firth was not good-looking enough as Darcy.” Meanwhile, writer Andrew Davies told the Sunday Times that he “was doubtful about [Firth] because of his gingerish hair and Mr. Darcy with that color hair would not have been right. So, to be honest, I never saw him as a Darcy.”
2. FIRTH DIDN’T SEE HIMSELF IN THE ROLE EITHER, AND NEARLY PASSED ON IT.
Though it’s the role that made him famous, Colin Firth almost said no to playing Mr. Darcy. While speaking at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2010, Firth admitted that he didn’t think he was right for the role. “I couldn’t see there was anything to play because the character doesn’t speak most of the time,” Firth said. “I thought this is just a guy who stands around for hours driving people to despair.”
"I didn't have the slightest clue on earth [who] Darcy was,” Firth said in another interview. “I hadn't read any Jane Austen at all, chiefly because when her novels were offered as potential coursework at school, I thought they'd be rather, well, sissy. And I certainly never dreamed of lifting an Austen off the library shelves or at a bookstall ... I had this prejudice that [the novel] would probably be girls' stuff. I had never realized that Darcy was such a famous figure in literature. [But whenever I mentioned the script,] everyone would tell me how they were devoted to this book, how at school they had been in love with Darcy.” (According to The Making of Pride and Prejudice, even Firth’s aunt begged him to turn down the role, so that he wouldn’t ruin the romantic image of Darcy she had held since her school days.)
3. AFTER READING FIVE PAGES OF THE SCRIPT, FIRTH WAS HOOKED.
Ultimately, it was Andrew Davies’s script that sold Firth on signing on the dotted line. "I think I was only about five pages into [the script] when I was hooked,” Firth recalled. “It was remarkable. I don't think any script has fired me up quite as much, just in the most basic, romantic-story terms ... I knew I had to listen to the voice inside me which said, 'You enjoyed this. It's the only script you've been able to read for long time.’ I had to take that seriously ... I knew that I wanted to be involved. I realized in the end that if anyone else played the part, I’d be extremely envious of them.”
4. THE SCREENWRITER WAS THE PRODUCER’S FORMER TEACHER.
Birtwistle first read Pride and Prejudice as a teenager, and once estimated that she had read it “at least 150 times since then,” and had long wanted to adapt it to the screen. She found a kindred spirit in Andrew Davies when the two met at England’s Coventry College, where Davies was Birtwistle’s English teacher during her freshman year. “I well recall Sue's entrepreneurial flair,” Davies said. “Even in those days she was already very much a producer ... We had similar ideas about how Pride and Prejudice should be approached when we talked about it—it's just that we seem to have taken a bit of time getting round to it! It was always my ambition when I was a lecturer that my pupils would eventually get powerful positions and be able to employ me in my old age. But Sue seems to have been the only one that's managed to do it!"
5. ANDREW DAVIES’S APPROACH TO AUSTEN’S WORK WAS CONSIDERED RATHER UNIQUE.
Some would describe Davies's version of Pride and Prejudice, which Simon Langton directed, as a bit steamier than previous adaptations, which was a very intentional decision on Davies’s part. “People have probably always noticed the erotic subtext of Austen’s works,” Sarah Raff, a professor of literature at Pomona College and the author of Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice, told The Atlantic. She said that Davies’s miniseries managed to stay true to the text and spirit of Austen’s novel, but also created a version of that story that was “directly relevant to [viewers’] own erotic lives.”
6. THE MINISERIES’ MOST FAMOUS SCENE WAS NOT IN THE NOVEL.
Though the entire series is 327 minutes long, a less-than-four-minute scene remains the series’ most iconic. You know the one we’re talking about: the scene in which Darcy takes advantage of a beautiful summer day and a body of water to go for a quick swim, which leaves him—and his white shirt—dripping wet. The scene was one of Davies’s own invention, and wasn’t meant to be suggestive.
“When women started pinning Colin’s picture on their walls, it was a puzzle and a surprise,” Davies told the BBC, “because I just thought it was a funny scene. It was about Darcy being a bloke, diving in his lake on a hot day, not having to be polite—and then he suddenly finds himself in a situation where he does have to be polite. So you have two people having a stilted conversation and politely ignoring the fact that one of them is soaking wet. I never thought it was supposed to be a sexy scene in any way.”
The Guardian later declared it “one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history.”
7. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT CALLED FOR DARCY TO TAKE THAT SWIM WITH NO SHIRT AT ALL (OR ANYTHING ELSE).
In a 2000 interview with The Guardian, Firth revealed that the innocent little swim was supposed to involve a bit of nudity. “Originally I was supposed to take all my clothes off and jump into the pool naked,” Firth said. “The moment where the man ... is a man. Instead of a stuffed shirt. He's riding on a sweaty horse, and then he's at one with the elements. But the BBC wasn't going to allow nudity, so an alternative had to be found.”
Several meetings were held about how to make the scene work. “The alternative,” according to Firth, “went via underpants, which, actually, were not historical. He would never have worn underpants. They would have looked ridiculous anyway.” So, Firth said, “If you can't take them all off, just jump in.”
8. THAT WHITE SHIRT HAS MADE THE ROUNDS.
Last summer, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. put Mr. Darcy’s white shirt on display as part of an exhibition, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” which ended in November. Labeled simply as “The Shirt,” Janine Barchas, a University of Texas English professor who co-curated the show, told The New York Times that, “The shirt seemed like a celebrity object that demonstrated the kind of fun that people have with Austen as an author. It exemplifies the kind of play that is central to our whole exhibition.”
9. JANE’S MOM WAS ALSO JANE.
Susannah Harker, who played Jane Bennet, is the daughter of actress Polly Adams, who played Jane in the BBC’s 1967 version of Pride and Prejudice. "That's an amazing coincidence, don't you think?,” Harker said. “Of course, we talked about it, and she told me how she played Jane all those years back in the sixties. But I didn't dig out any archive tape or film or anything. I wanted to play it for myself.”
10. IN SOME WAYS, DAVIES’S SCRIPT HAS REPLACED AUSTEN’S ORIGINAL TEXT.
In the years since the miniseries’ release, many people have referenced scenes and dialogue in Davies’s script as if it came from Austen’s novel. “It’s almost usurped the original novel in the minds of the public,” Deborah Cartmell, a professor at De Montfort University and the author of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Relationship Between Text and Screen, told the BBC. “Since it came out, every cultural reference to Jane Austen, and every adaptation, has had as much to do with Andrew Davies as it does to Austen … I’ve taught the lake scene so many times, and when my students read the novel for the first time they are absolutely shocked that that scene isn’t in it.”
11. MILITARY PLANES WERE A REGULAR THREAT TO FILMING.
Unlike many of its predecessors, which chose to shoot in a studio, Pride and Prejudice made use of the many grand locations that England offered the filmmakers; Lyme Park played the role of Pemberley, for example, while Luckington Court was used for Longbourn. As it turns out, many of the locations they chose were located close to military bases, which meant that planes in the sky were a regular occurrence, and reason for Langton to call cut. "I'm delighted that [our actors were happy] and I always believe that you get the very best from your cast and crew when everyone is relaxed,” Langton said. “But every director will tell you that when you're working on a major project like this, every single morning you wake up and wonder what the hazards are going to be. Is it going to be rain, will the sun shine for you? Has anyone got a cold or the flu? And when we were making Pride and Prejudice, were the RAF going to do a close formation exercise-bombing raid right over the top of us just as Elizabeth Bennet has something important to say to Darcy? The locations we used were absolutely stunning, but fate decreed that the main ones were almost invariably near the RAF or NATO base, and we had to do a bit of persuading of the various commanders that they wouldn't overfly at certain times and places.”
12. THE PRODUCTION OPERATED MORE LIKE A STAGE PRODUCTION.
Alison Steadman, who played Mrs. Bennet, said that making Pride and Prejudice “really was an acting challenge. Just one of the reasons is because the language is structured completely differently to the way we talk now. We had to be very careful to get everything precisely right. Now normally when I'd do a television piece, I find that it's okay for me to learn the lines the night before shooting, and then polish them on the way to the studio or the location in the taxi. But not with this. It was far more like working for the stage—learning a lot in advance. It’s been a very good discipline for me, and a challenge—which I enjoy."
13. PART OF ITS SUCCESS IS ATTRIBUTED TO ITS PACING.
Today, anyone can binge-watch all of Pride and Prejudice in one sitting. But when it originally aired, both in England and in America, the series ran one episode per week for six weeks, and long before BBC On Demand was a thing. Professor Kathryn Sutherland, author of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: from Aeschylus to Bollywood, believes the waiting period only added to the miniseries’ popularity, as did its cinematic sensibility. “It has the same qualities that we associate with the big-screen Austen adaptations of the time, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Douglas McGrath’s Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow,” Sutherland told the BBC. “Like them, it has moving cameras, quick cuts, open landscapes, and the emotional intensity of a strong musical score. But because it was broadcast over six weeks, it could keep us waiting for the happy ending, so there was a cumulative excitement and a public participation in it that you can’t get from a two-hour film.”
14. FIRTH WAS FILMING THE ENGLISH PATIENT WHEN THE SERIES AIRED, BUT HIS MOM KEPT HIM APPRISED OF THE REACTION.
Firth didn’t get the chance to witness England’s reaction to Pride and Prejudice firsthand, as he was off shooting The English Patient when the series aired. Fortunately, his mom was watching—and reporting back. “I thought my mum was having me on,” Firth said. “She would ring me up every so often and say, '[Pride and Prejudice] is popular. People like it.' Then she'd ring again and say, 'Actually, they're going a bit mad about it.' Then, 'This seems to be getting out of control.' My initial reaction was, 'Yeah, right, Mum.'”
15. FIRTH AND EHLE’S RELATIONSHIP TURNED ROMANTIC OFF-SCREEN, TOO—WHICH PROVED A BIT CHALLENGING.
Like their onscreen characters, Firth and Ehle developed romantic feelings toward each other off-screen, too. The couple dated for about a year, and Firth said that dating his onscreen love interest actually proved to be a bit of a challenge. “I actually find that if you're involved with an actress that you're having to tell a love story with, it's more difficult,” Firth told the Independent. “I don't find it easy to draw on it. Your relationship, your feelings aren't the same as those of the characters. She's not that person. And you're not telling your own story. So I think you have to put all your own stuff aside completely and reconceive your relationship as other people. So I think it stands in the way, to be honest."
16. NEARLY HALF OF ENGLAND TUNED IN TO WATCH THE FINAL EPISODE.
Throughout its original broadcast in England in the fall of 1995, Pride and Prejudice was a huge hit, averaging between 10 and 11 million viewers per episode. For the final episode, approximately 40 percent of England tuned in to watch.
17. IT LED TO AN UPTICK IN JANE AUSTEN EROTICA.
Though Pride and Prejudice didn’t invent the literary subgenre, an increase in the number of people writing Jane Austen-themed erotica was noticed following the miniseries’ release, according to The New York Times. With titles like Spank Me, Mr. Darcy; Pride and Penetration; and Seducing Mr. Darcy, these literary contributions clearly aren’t the work of Austen. ''That broadcast brought a lot of obsessives out of the woodwork,'' Myretta Robens, co-founder of The Republic of Pemberley fan site, told The New York Times.
18. WHEN MATTHEW RHYS PLAYED DARCY IN DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, HE JUST COPIED FIRTH.
In 2013, the BBC debuted Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice based on P. D. James’s novel. The big question on everyone’s mind, of course, was who would play Mr. Darcy. Eventually, the role went to The Americans star Matthew Rhys, who knew that there was nothing he could do to erase the image of Firth from viewers’ mind—so he just went with it.
“It is a double-whammy,” Rhys told The Big Issue. “Not only can you upset all those Austen fans with very firm ideas about Darcy, but you also have Colin Firth, who concreted the idea of Darcy in the national psyche. You mention Darcy and picture Colin Firth. It is instant. Even my dad said, ‘Oh, are you paying the Colin Firth character?’ As much as you want to be, you are not coming at a blank canvas. I didn’t want to change him just for the sake of it, so what am I supposed to do? Nothing. I just watched Colin Firth and then tried to copy him as best I could!”
19. FIRTH NEARLY PASSED ON BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY IN ORDER TO GET OUT OF “THE DARCY BUSINESS.”
Before you ask: Yes, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary—which began as a weekly column in the Independent—is modeled after Pride and Prejudice and, yes, Fielding always imagined Colin Firth as Mark Darcy. Which made him the obvious choice for casting when the book version was adapted for the big screen—except, just as with Pride and Prejudice, Firth was reluctant to take the part.
In a 2001 interview with NOW Magazine, Firth admitted that he was hesitant to revisit “the Darcy business,” saying that, “If I spent 20 years training to be an astronaut, the headlines would still say ‘Darcy Lands On Mars!’ ... Pride and Prejudice wasn't the most rigorous or challenging thing I've done.” Eventually, and fortunately, he relented.
20. BAD NEWS: THE REAL MR. DARCY WOULDN’T LOOK ANYTHING LIKE COLIN FIRTH.
A group of researchers led by John Sutherland, a professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, and Amanda Vickery, a professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London, were recently commissioned by Drama TV to dig into Austen’s text (which offers very little description of Darcy), the author's own romantic relationships (which often inspired her work), and the fashion standards of the time to create the first historically accurate image of Mr. Darcy, courtesy of editorial artist and illustrator Nick Hardcastle. Here’s what he looks like:
According to the team’s research, Mr. Darcy—who would stand just under 6 feet tall—would have “a long oval face with a small mouth, pointy chin, and long nose.” This pale-complexioned dreamboat would also have “slender sloping shoulders and [a] modest chest” and his hair would be white—and powdered.
“There are only scraps of physical description of Fitzwilliam Darcy to be found in Pride and Prejudice; he is our most mysterious and desirable leading man of all time,” Sutherland explained. “What's fantastic about Jane Austen's writing is that Mr. Darcy is both of the era and timeless. Our research for TV channel Drama's Jane Austen Season shows how Austen herself envisioned Mr. Darcy, however the literature leaves space for the reader's imagination to create their own Darcy and bring their own fantasies to the storyline.”
All images courtesy of Pride & Prejudice (BBC)/Facebook unless otherwise noted.