|To Continue the Discussion of Mr. Darcy's Trousers....
Tuesday, 13-Jul-1999 21:43:58
- 220.127.116.11 writes:
This article originally appeared in The London Times in 1996, when P&P was first being shown.
The six-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Andrew Davies was eventually bought up by the BBC and, beginning on 24 September 1995, screened on Sunday nights with a repeat the following
Saturday. There followed a period of what was variously called 'Austenmania', 'Austenfever',
'Austenitis' and perhaps, the most frequently-used description of all, 'Darcymania'. Some commentators with long memories claimed that there had been nothing quite like it since the Beatlemania of the 1960s.
The viewing figures for this adaptation, rising to over 10 million for the last episode, were the highest that there has ever been for a classic serial, or what the Radio Times preferred to call a 'costume classic'. When the video priced at just under £20 was released in advance of the final episode, it sold 12,000 copies in just two days and 50,000 within the week. Many viewers were obviously desperate to find out for themselves as quickly as possible how the romance was going to end. Publications such as The Times and the Radio Times which spoilt the suspense for other viewers by revealing in advance the two-weddings-and-no-funerals ending, were taken to task for doing so by some of their readers. The day before the final episode was screened, the Independent declared that 'lovelorn women and adoring marketing men are murmuring just one name: Darcy'....
Considerable newspaper coverage was devoted to the 'tumultuous', 'terrific', 'heaving', 'bursting' and 'bounteous' bosoms that were displayed in this adaptation of P&P. One of the first laws of heritage television is that ratings soar if necklines plunge. The costume classic has to have a super-abundance of what became known as 'the period bosom'. The fact that a small company in Portsmouth that manufactured corsets was advertising for a few extra staff would not normally be considered national news. Yet it was reported by some national newspapers as an example of how 'Austenmania' was helping to promote a resurgence of interest in old-fashioned undergarments. There was an article in the
Daily Express on 19 October 1995 entitled 'Pride in Your Cleavage', which offered readers in search of a 'classic cleavage' the chance to win a bustier and matching briefs designed by Berlei. This company, which apparently had a rush on their bone corsets, promised in some of its promotional material that its garments would produce 'an authentic P&P cleavage'. The Sunday Express published an article called 'Sense and Sensuality' on 29 October 1995 which contrasted the elegant, 'sensually alluring' costumes worn in the television adaptation with the 'scrawny' look allegedly favored by modern designers. Here and elsewhere, the soft elegance of heritage versions of Austen's world is contrasted with what are taken to be the harsher realities of the present. Many other newspapers and magazines discussed at length what the Daily Telegraph described on 24 October 1995 as the 'bonnet and bosoms boom'. According to the Sunday Times on 15 October 1995, 'the sound of squealing bosoms being squeezed into period costume has been deafening'.
Male costume and the male body also figured prominently in the gossip that circulated ceaselessly around the adaptation. It was confidentially claimed by The Times on 20 November 1995 that a million women, no more and no less, wanted to unbutton the damp white shirt that was worn by Colin Firth when he played Mr. Darcy. It was auctioned for charity and fetched £500. What the Sun described on 1 November 1995 as Darcy's 'straining breeches with the trapdoor front' may well have fetched considerably more had they too gone under the hammer. Mr. Darcy's trousers attracted even more attention than Elizabeth Bennet's frocks and cleavage. The Guardian had noted on 2 October 1995 that in the earlier episodes 'the soldiers' trousers were all-too-obviously filled with the joys of Spring'. These trousers were, apparently, specially made for the production since the ones that had originally been hired were too stretchy and thus not revealing enough. The gaze of The Guardian's television reviewer fell more directly on Darcy's nether regions in an article on 23 October 1995, which claimed that 'no one could live in trousers like that without the tension finally getting to them'. Mr. Darcy's trousers still figured very prominently in the mind's eye of those who had to write articles regarding the high points of the year. According to The Times on 26 December 1995, they were without any doubt at all the outfit of the year: "Nothing came close to Colin Firth and those trousers...The sight of Firth wearing button flap, full-front breeches sent women everywhere into fainting fits."...The Independent declared on the same day that Firth was its man of the year because he was a 'sex symbol to outshine all of Hollywood's hunkies'. Those trousers were speaking for, as
well as to, England. Clint Eastwood they ain't.
Firth was reported in the press to have had a brief but passionate affair on location with Jennifer Ehle, the actress who played Elizabeth Bennet. This prompted Imogen Edward-Jones to warn readers of The Evening Standard on 16 October 1995 never ever to 'lay a luvvie', since according to her thespians were notoriously fickle in their affections. Perhaps the 'hot gossip' about this affair helps to explain why the scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth attracted so much interest. It was suggested by some that although the dialogue spoken by Darcy and Elizabeth implies sexual innocence by modern
standards, their on-screen presence and chemistry emphatically contradicted this.
A letter to the Radio Times for the 18-24 November 1995 issue claimed that 'Colin Firth is the sexiest person on the screen...The scenes with Jennifer Ehle are truly erotic, and they hardly touch each other.' Incidentally, another letter in the same issue pointed out that 'classic cleavages could be, and were, created by the line of a dress without the aid of wonderbras and bustiers'. This was also the issue that carried what was described as 'the very first Radio Times pin-up'. A full-page portrait
showed Firth, attired in Regency evening dress, striking a smouldering, glowering pose with a suitably stormy sky in the background. His trousers are not, however, as much in evidence in this up-market piece of Regency raunch as they were on the television screen since the pin-up is decorously, or perhaps mischievously, cut off just below the waist.... Descriptions of Firth in the newspapers included 'national heartthrob', 'dreamboat', 'dashing', 'dishy' and 'drop dead gorgeous'....
The coverage given to Mr. Darcy far exceeded that accorded to Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC book has a chapter-length interview with Colin Firth rather than with Jennifer Ehle. Many newspapers devoted themselves almost exclusively to the question of why Darcy had caught the imagination of the
viewing public. Rosemary Carpenter, writing for the women's page in the Daily Express, posed a
series of gushing questions for her readers in an article entitled 'Why do we all adore Darcy?' One of the answers that is suggested is that the subtle hint of passion conveyed by Darcy is much more erotic than raw sex. Even so, Mr. Darcy's cult status still had its puzzling aspects. Firth was clearly not tall enough for the part and was sometimes filmed with a tilted camera to give an illusion of greater stature. The actors who played Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam did not appear to be so deficient in the height
department. The make-up team apparently had to work overtime on Firth's hair, sideboards and
eyelashes to make sure that he was dark enough for the part. He reportedly wore mascara around his eyes, whereas the actresses were forbidden to use it in order to create a natural look.
The Daily Express continued to tremble away about Darcy. It reported in some detail on 30 October
1995 on the lives of four men whose only claim to fame was that they too were called Darcy. Once
again, there are a string of breathless questions. Would these men turn out to be 'classic English gentlemen, cool and reserved on the outside, but with a delicious simmering centre of repressed emotion?'. The four very ordinary blokes who were eventually 'tracked down' by the Daily Express stood no chance of living up to such great expectations. Fantasy collided painfully with reality....
Andrew Davies explained to readers of the Daily Mail on 31 October 1995 why he had taken the
decision to build up Darcy's character: "I wanted to show, or at least hint, from an early stage, that there's a lot more to Darcy than meets the eye. Also I wanted to remind the audience that he, like the other young people in the story, is a real human being, with a physical and mental life, who likes to ride his horse at a full gallop and subjects himself to a gruelling workoug with his fencing master when he's trying to overcome his emotional turmoil."
The adaptation opens with Darcy and Bingley galloping around the countryside in search of, not a wife, but a house. They are spotted by Elizabeth who is out for the first of her many walks. We see Darcy, accompanied by both Bingley and Mr. Hurst, enjoying a day's shooting at Netherfield, as well as walking slowly back to the house afterwards. He and Bingley go shooting again later on, just before the scene in which he very bluntly advises his friend to 'go to it' and propose to Jane Bennet. The adaptation also finds room for short scenes between Darcy and Wickham. He arrives in Ramsgate in the nick of time to prevent his sister from eloping with Wickham. We see him at the shotgun wedding between Lydia Bennet and Wickham, as well as making the financial arrangements for it with the Gardiners.
In addition to these scenes which explore Darcy's relationships with other men, we encounter him on
his own. He has a bath, helped by a servant and then watches Elizabeth playing in the garden with one of the dogs. We see him walking moodily back to Rosings after Elizabeth has rejected his proposal. He then spends all night writing her a letter. We see him riding back to Pemberley on his own after going for a swim. He walks around the house with his two dogs, after Elizabeth has spent the evening there, thinking about her. We see him leave the next day to call on her at her hotel. When Elizabeth breaks to him the news of Lydia's scandalous elopement, we see him back at Pemberley spending a miserable evening. He then sets off for London with the coachman shouting at and whipping the horses. This melodramatic narrative created by Davies is cut into Austen's one that deals with Elizabeth's return to Longbourn. We are shown Darcy arriving in London, slaking his thirst after the long journey. This is followed by a sequence in which he descends into the underworld to hunt down Wickham and Lydia.
We are certainly shown a whole lot more of Darcy than meets our eye in Austen's novel, and then
some more. This compromises one romance plot which emphasizes the mystery that often surrounds
his manners, movements and motives. Elizabeth either has to piece these together from the scraps of information that are available to her and the other women, or else learn to wait more patiently for explananations. This romance plot teaches its female readers how to read as accurately as possible small signs and muffled clues. Although Davies's decision to give viewers some access to Darcy's point of view weakens this particular romance plot, it emphasises another equally important one. We see Darcy's torture and torment, and thus the way in which romance empowers Elizabeth. According to Colin Firth, Darcy is trying to pursue Elizabeth and yet trying to reject her at the same time. The 'workout' in the fencing club is an important scene in this romance plot. Darcy fences with the professional, attracting admiring gazes from some of the young gents who are lounging around. After the bout has finished, he says, "I shall conquer this, I shall", meaning the romance that has begun to take over his life. At one level, he has every incentive to do just this when faced with the prospect of the mother-in-law from hell. This adaptation is good at making the Bennets, together with their relations like Mr. Collins, extremely embarrassing at social occasions like the Netherfield ball. Yet Darcy's manly thoughts and pursuits do no provide an adequate defence against the power of romance. Elizabeth wins the romantic fencing bout based on verbal parries and thrusts, looks and glances. She has power, albeit perhaps only briefly during this courtship phase, over one of the most powerful men in England. Despite all his strenuous efforts, Darcy is ultimately unable to conquer some of his perfectly rational objections to the marriage. 'Darcymania' clearly marginalises Elizabeth and yet, paradoxically perhaps, it also highlights aspects of her strength....
'Darcymania' was often a very tongue-in-cheek game. Some of the journalists who trembled and
swooned over this rather stocky Darcy affected not to notice the dyed hair and the mascara around the eyes, while at the same time being all too aware that his appearance was very cultivated indeed. Alternatively, perhaps Darcy's 'feminised' appearance was part of his appeal even though this was not debated in the mainstream press. He was certainly dressed up in the various uniforms of the Regency dandy and yet never really came across as being one. This may be because the production team chose to emphasise instead a more sultry Byronic look. These two looks are certainly not mutually exclusive. Byron himself was friends with most of the leading dandies and was quite happy to confess to having had at least a tinge of dandyism in his youth. Yet the scenes in which Darcy fences, goes for a swim and walks around his house with his dogs draw on memories of Byron rather than ones of Brummell. The scenes in which he reveals his struggle and torment also show him to be closer to the Romantic hero than to the Regency dandy. He is dressed for one part and yet is sometimes playing another one.
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice and its spin-offs were clearly well marketed, although this is not a sufficient explanation for 'Austenmania'. Many heritage products are hyped, only to die a very quick death in the marketplace. An adaptation of Austen will always deliver a reasonably large audience. Yet this still leaves the question of why this particular one at this particular time should have been so successful. I have a theory.
The 1990s have seen the monarchy increasingly associated once again with a number of sexual
scandals, some of which at have at least a Regency flavor. Although the Regency period has always been topical, there has been a marked increase of interest in women like Dorothy Jordan and Princess (later Queen) Charlotte, who were dumped by male members of the Royal Family. We, like Regency readers, seem to be enthralled by gossip about the lives of our current Prince of Wales, his brothers and the women both in and out of their lives. Interest in the Regency period has been revived, and 'Austenmania' is a key subportion of this interest. 'Austenmania' generally distances us from the history of the Regency with its imperfect replication of the era, while, at the same time, still possesses the capacity to bring us occassionally much closer to it.