These older series are interesting little pieces of history in their own right, and the differences between versions can be illuminating. This version is nearly forty years old, and it shows in some aspects – the sets and costumes, for instance, are far more stagey than modern TV, but the actors, brought up in the grand British traditions of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC, know how to enunciate properly so that the viewer doesn’t need subtitles to understand what’s going on.
Of the actors, the only one I recognised was Tracey Childs (Marianne), who was also in another 80’s drama, Howard’s Way. I thought she made an excellent Marianne, capturing nicely her over-exuberant and emotional personality. She was particularly effective in the distraught London scenes. Irene Richards, as Elinor, was less effective, I thought. She captured effectively neither the practical, down-to-earth side of her character, nor the deep-seated emotions bubbling beneath the surface. I also found her movements to be rather stilted, but perhaps that was an attempt to convey her repressed nature.
Of the minor characters, Mrs Jennings was given a much bigger and more sympathetic role here, turning her from a comedy figure teasing the girls about their lovers to a genuinely maternal person. I liked her the better for it, but it didn’t feel true to the book. The other characters were competent without standing out particularly. Lady Middleton had more of a role in this version, being far more lively than in the book (some versions cut her out altogether). Margaret was the one who got the chop here, but I don’t think the story was any the worse for it.
The one seminal scene by which I judge any adaptation of this book is the occasion when Elinor is called upon to tell Edward that Colonel Brandon has given him a living, so enabling him to marry Lucy Steele. The pathos in the scene, and the subtext which both the reader/viewer and the characters themselves are equally aware of, that Elinor and Edward are very much in love and Edward is only marrying to honourably uphold a longstanding and bitterly regretted engagement, makes it one of the most profoundly moving scenes ever written. It needs superb acting skills but no other embellishment. The Emma Thompson version captured this perfectly, while the 2008 version resorted to overacting and oozing emotionalism. This version is pretty good, too, and stuck to the original words for maximum effect.
The settings lost a certain wildness. Barton Cottage was chocolate box pretty, and nowhere near the sea, and Marianne’s propensity to walk in the rain was lost. I thought an opportunity was lost to portray the sisters’ characters through their clothes, but they seemed to wear very similar garments. Elinor’s in particular I felt should have been plainer, less decorated, to demonstrate her practical nature, and the frill of curled hair round her face was entirely wrong. None of the dresses looked quite right, to me. Maybe they economised by not using authentic materials, so that although they superficially looked all right, they didn’t sit or drape properly.
One aspect that bothered me a great deal was a certain degree of impropriety in the sisters. The number of times one or other of them was left alone in a room with a man was shocking! Elinor was constantly showing people out (that’s what the servants are for, dear), and when Colonel Brandon was brought into Marianne’s bedroom and then left alone with her – I clutched my pearls, I can tell you. But maybe all that was in the book, who knows.
A competent adaptation, I thought, and enjoyable to watch but not my favourite.