Love is in the air as Pride and Prejudice's iconic characters Darcy and Elizabeth return in Death Comes to Pemberley

It was daunting to play them, Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin tell Gerard Gilbert 

In no small part thanks to Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in Andrew Davies’ definitive modern screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, BBC1’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice (now, shockingly, getting on for 20 years old), Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy have become iconic fictional characters. Into these daunting early 19th-century shoes now slip Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin, who play Darcy and Bennet six years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, in a BBC adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James’ continuation of Austen’s novel as a murder mystery. “Playing an iconic literary hero is always a little problematic”, says Rhys. “Coupled with that, the fact that aforesaid literary hero has been immortalised by Colin Firth. My initial reaction was to say ‘no’.”

In PD James’ novel Darcy is a changed man, living contentedly at the family seat in Pemberley when the uninvited arrival of former nemesis George Wickham and his flighty wife Lydia kickstarts a murder mystery that involves most of the much-loved characters from Austen’s original. “We wanted to bring back some of the characters that PD didn’t have space for,” says writer Juliette Towhidi, “like Lady Catherine de Burgh (Darcy’s haughty aunt, played here by Penelope Keith).”

“I love Matthew as Darcy”, continues Towhidi. “I think he brings a whole Celtic soul thing to it.” To portray Elizabeth Bennet, the production turned to Anna Maxwell Martin – most recently seen playing Judi Dench’s daughter in Philomena, and, when I spoke her, auditioning for the Sam Mendes production of King Lear at the National Theatre.

“When I was young and the first Pride and Prejudice was on the telly, I said, ‘I would love to be in something like that,’” she says. “But I struggled with it in the beginning because it’s Lizzie six years on. She is now a very powerful lady in charge of a huge household – very different from the Lizzie you see in Pride and Prejudice. I struggled with wafting around giving orders… not doing much. Lizzie is a woman of action, so I felt very constrained. I pined for old Lizzie really.”

Rhys had similar misgivings. “I’ve always found it hard playing an upper-class Englishman,” says the Cardiff-born actor. “I always feel I’m pretending to be Lord Snooty,  and when I’m telling servants what to do I always feel utterly fake.” And Rhys, who is currently in New York while filming the second series of the Cold War spy thriller The Americans, adds that he finds a Yankie accent easier than a posh English one. “Growing up in Cardiff we were always running around pretending to be members of the A-Team, not playing lord of the manor.”

This sense that they had been miscast did however help bond the two leading actors. “The first week Matthew and I were nervous,” admits Martin. “Not that we weren’t up to it in terms of acting, but we felt there is a pressure with these parts… you must look a certain way.” Director Daniel Percival had no such doubts. “When I first approached Anna and Matthew I wanted to get them out for a drink together, I wanted to see them together,” he says. “They hit it off, and instantly I stopped worrying about it because the most important thing about Elizabeth and Darcy is chemistry. We have to believe in them as two people so exquisitely made for each other”.

Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin on the set of ‘Death Comes to Pemberley' Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin on the set of ‘Death Comes to Pemberley' (BBC)  

The interiors in Death Comes to Pemberely were shot inside Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which is where both television and movie versions of Brideshead Revisited were filmed, while the exteriors are of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, which is where director Joe Wright filmed his 2005 movie version of Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. As well as Rhys and Martin, the cast includes Trevor Eve, Matthew Goode, Rebecca Front and – taking time out from being a timelord’s assistant, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, who plays Lydia Wickham. “My first question to Dan (Percival) was, ‘How far do you want me to go?’” she says. “That’s one of the most appealing things about Lydia – there’s so much licence with her.

“I’ve never done period before – it was such fun. People were swimming before work… everything you could imagine about filming Austen in the summer is what it was.” Rhys echoes Coleman. “It turned into one of those Swallows and Amazons  idyllic shoots,” he says. “We were actually swimming in rivers and trying local scrumpy.”

Martin’s only grumble about these “halcyon days” concerns Lizzie’s elaborate costumes. “I do find that sort of thing a pain,” she says. “And I’d get evil stares from the costume department because I kept collapsing on the ground and rolling around on the floor laughing, creasing my costume and getting mud all over it.”

She’s not exaggerating, says Rhys. “Anna has this beautiful thing when she laughs: she laughs so wholeheartedly that she drops to her knees,” he says. “The women always get it worse with period costumes. At lunch, when it was really hot, we’d just take off the frock coats and waistcoats, and walk around in just the billowy white shirts. At the more touristy places we were filming in,  you’d walk around in the full regalia and no one would say anything. But when you’re just in the breeches and white shirt women of a certain age would go, ‘Ooh, don’t you look nice.’”

Not that Rhys staged a repeat of the scene in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice where Colin Firth’s Darcy dives into the lake, which was named earlier this year (in a UKTV survey) ‘the most memorable moment in British TV drama’. “That was firmly established early on… there wouldn’t be a wet-shirt-out-of-a-lake moment,” says Rhys, adding that he hasn’t bumped into Firth since being cast. “Matthew Macfadyen I was at Rada with, however. We might start up a club – like a Darcy dining club – swapping Darcy notes.”

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ begins Boxing Day at 8.15pm on BBC1

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...