Standing at fourteen hours and thirty minutes, getting through The Jane Austen BBC Radio Dramatisation Collection has been my audiobook Everest. Costing only one Audible credit as opposed to six, it is definitely the most cost-effective option for getting one’s Austen into one’s earphones. On the down side though, these are abridged adaptations as opposed to the book actually being read out loud. As a long-term fan of BBC Radio dramatisations, I decided the compromise was worthwhile and so Jane Austen became part of my weekly commute, something which really rounded out the Austen in August experience.
As one might expect, certain of the productions were better than others – I realised as well that I had already heard a couple of them at different points over the years. For ease of reference, I decided to look at each one separately:
Mansfield Park – 2003
It amuses me to see how much more heavily marketed this play is than the rest of the collection – while at the time, I did notice and was intrigued by the fact that Felicity Jones (a.k.a. Emma Carter #1 from The Archers) was playing Fanny Price, I had absolutely no idea who the rest of the cast was. Flash forward fourteen years and that Benedict Cumberbatch guy is quite the thing, as is this David Tennant character who nobody knew much about at the time. It’s a nicely done adaptation, although having read and understood a lot more about the play which causes so much trouble, I can see now that the script team had failed to their own research on that subject. Benedict Cumberbatch captures a lot of Edmund Bertram’s hypocrisy and self-delusion while David Tennant manages a lot of Tom Bertram’s uselessness. The greater focus on the dialogue means that you can sort of imagine that Edmund just might love Fanny, something which the novel itself is never very clear about.
Northanger Abbey – 2016
I listened to this last year so compared to the others it felt a lot more familiar. The Catherine Moreland was as naive as possible, but some of the supporting cast felt like odd choices. Jenny Agutter only ever sounds soothing and respectable so casting her as a the vapid Mrs Thorpe did not feel a good fit, then Claire Skinner sounds too old to be Isabella Thorpe. Skinner is one of those actresses who never really turns in a bad performance and she reaches Isabella’s heights of bitchiness with ease but I just couldn’t picture it. Also, I’m not sure who the Henry Tilney was but he sounded far too ‘cool’ – I always imagined the man as more of a nerd, particularly in contrast to John Thorpe’s boorishness. It was hard to imagine him truly loving someone who was as much of a ninny as poor Catherine. I liked this production of Northanger Abbey but I can’t say that I loved it.
Sense and Sensibility – 2013
Amanda Hale is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses and she was surely born to play Elinor. Hale excels at playing restrained inner torment. This is not to say that Olivia Hallinan is bad – far from it – she’s just outshone by her co-star. This actually turned out to be my favourite of the collection and was one of the big reasons why I decided to re-read the book itself. There were some odd choices, not least the decision to write out youngest sister Margaret (I know Margaret doesn’t do much but it feels a bit grim to just ditch the poor child), but I think that Hale gave one of the best interpretations of Elinor that I can remember while still keeping her at the age which Austen intended.
Pride and Prejudice – 2014
With a book as well-known and frequently adapted as this one, even minor deviations from the plot will rankle. There were quite a few with this one and at certain points I seriously considered just skipping through to the next story. For starters, they had Darcy and Elizabeth dance twice, once at Sir William Lucas’ (the party where in the book Elizabeth refused to dance with him) and then again at Netherfield. No. No. The whole point was that they kept missing each other and only danced once before they were married. Plus the timeline was messed up and the Elizabeth was boring and lacking in humour. I felt disappointed – I think this is how I’m going to feel when the ITV version comes out though so I suppose it’s best to practice.
Emma – 2000
There were lots of things I liked about this – the piano music intervals which faltered whenever Emma made a mistake, the high-spirited Emma herself and the fact that it did stay pretty close to the book. However. Emma really is a book that makes you cringe at times and given that when I do that, I cringe pretty hard, I found myself continually having to press pause and play Words with Friends for a few minutes before I could venture back in again. So I spent a lot longer on this play than on the others. I also found it a bit distracting that Robert Bathurst was playing Mr Knightley here whereas in the 2009 BBC television adaptation, he played Frank Churchill’s father Mr Weston. I guess voice work really does have a much greater leeway in terms of age. It was strange too to recognise Ellie Beaven as Harriet Smith – she used to be absolutely everywhere but I haven’t seen her in anything in years. This was probably my second favourite within the collection but non-cringers would likely enjoy it more.
Persuasion – 2007
I’m biased against this one because it’s not the 1995 BBC film. For me, Amanda Root is who I picture when I think of Anne Elliot and Ciaran Hinds is Captain Wentworth. There was a pantomime quality to this audio version of the book which did not help, neither did the fact that the actresses playing Mary and Henrietta Musgrove were so interchangeably silly. I think too though that Juliet Stevenson has such a distinctive voice that I found her a distracting presence within a period drama. Still, Persuasion which is such a very lovely story – you really can’t complain.
This was a lovely companion for the morning and evening commutes – even when you know about all of the subversive stuff running beneath the surface, there really is something very relaxing about Jane Austen. I did wish though that the fantastically over the top radio adaptation of Lady Susan had also made it into the recording. While an abridged adaptation is never the same, I really enjoyed how this collection allowed me to experience all six novels for Austen in August. A fantastic Audible find!
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Published by BBC Worldwide Limited on March 17th 2016
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