Jane Austen meets Sex and the City

A new BBC adaptation of Emma abandons Austen’s barbed wit in favour of 21st-century dating psychobabble.

Emily Hill

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Very brave of the Beeb, a mere three weeks after the Roman Polanski hoo-ha, to screen a sex comedy on Sunday nights in which Sick Boy from Trainspotting plays a rich, ramrod, old suitor, who fell in love with the heroine when she was a mere 13 years old.

Not. (As a character in Wayne’s World would say.)

For the BBC’s latest romp turns out to be yet another Jane Austen adaptation: Emma, this time remade as a three-episode version of Sex and the City – plus corsets, minus the Mac and Manhattan. ‘You must look demure but at the same time alluring’, trills Miss Emma Woodhouse to her clueless girlfriend, Harriet, who’s trying to hook up with the local vicar. Pass the Prada bonnet and get thee to a ballroom, this is absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen and everything to do with bad dialogue and hammy flashbacks involving Jane Fairfax almost falling off a cliff.

Everyone who’s going to watch the programme will know the plot already (spoilt heiress gets married to her sister’s brother-in-law, with assorted japes and gypsies in between), so why another spin around of the Austen whirligig? Doesn’t the old girl deserve a rest?

Scriptwriter Andrew Davies has a lot to answer for – his decision to have Darcy jump into a pond and come across Elizabeth in sopping britches in the 1995 bonkbuster version of Pride and Prejudice (near perfect in every other sense) seems to have spawned the idea that Jane Austen is really all about what period fashions might look like damp. Since then we’ve had another Pride and Prejudice adaptation, for the big screen, in which Keira Knightley falls in love with a Darcy so un-Darcy he somehow drifted out of Pemberly straight onto windswept moors in order to come back as a dripping wet Heathcliff (pre-Cliff Richard). Shortly after there was a BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility in which pent-up, wannabe reverend Edward Ferrars strips off to chop wood in a sudden downpour.

In Emma – here we go again – our Humbert Humbert hero Mr Knightley (aka Sick Boy: actor Jonny Lee Miller) has awfully nice trousers, and is very passionate, in a most un-Knightley, un-Austenian way. ‘You’re always out and about when I’m around’, he sighs to his nymphet, now all grown up with ringlets. ‘Mr Elton and I are simply very good friends and nothing more’, huffs Emma. (Although, mercy-be, in terms of wet clothes Knightley has only capered about with a few snowballs so far, moistening his gloves slightly.)

The tension of the series comes not from the characters being marooned in stuffy Regency England, but from the bizarre twenty-first-century dating psychobabble. At some point, whoever created this very pretty 9pm drama seems to have thrown the actual novel aside and adapted the work with exclusive reference to other Jane Austen adaptations and what they think middle-aged women want to down with their end-of-Sabbath Chardonnay. Even the actors seem to be stuck in synthetic Austen-land. The actor who plays Mr Eliot, for instance, is the spitting image of the man who played Wickham in Davies’ P&P but turns out to be (IMDB informs me) Tom, the errant elder brother of Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park who, uncannily enough, was also played by Sick Boy (aka Mr Knightley in this version of Emma).

The point of a Jane Austen novel is not the riveting plot, nor the unbearable tweeness that this version seems to thrive on. It’s the barbed wit of the language that means Austen’s work is picked up again and again. Martin Amis had it right when he noted that in his 1995 version of P&P Andrew Davies had been ‘shrewd enough to regard his function as one of artistic midwifery – to get the thing out of the page and on to the screen in as undamaged a state as possible’. Aldous Huxley’s 1940 version, Amis added, was ‘cold proof that any tampering will reduce the original to emollient inconsequentiality’.

And so here we are again back at Emma. Clueless, an updated comedy version starring Alicia Silverstone, was better than this, at least bothering to take the book down off the bookshelf. What I want to know is, why can’t the BBC start adapting something that might be new to someone, somewhere if they really have to do a big period drama every six months? Top of my list for stuff screaming to get off the shelves is a really dank and dirty version of Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (Slays Two, Found Gassed, Thinks of Cat), Dostoevsky’s Devils (sex, death and revolution), or something really ambitious, like Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill longed for a time before Austenmania took off in 1995. She also praised Patrick Hamilton, who wrote of loneliness and longing like no other. Tara McCormack wasn’t keen on the TV adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Elsewhere, Jennie Bristow wondered if the climax of sex and the City really did see the girls grow up. And she also gave a thumbs-down to the Chick-lit phenomenon. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment

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