Last Night's TV: Give me plain Jane, not soft porn

Sense and Sensibility, BBC1; Jam and Jerusalem, BBC1
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Davies's new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility began as "Seduction and Sensuality", with a soft-porn sequence of flame-lit skin and slow unlacing. The seducee hesitated, but the seducer had an argument ready to breathe into her ear: "Mrs Edwards thinks you're a child, but we know better than that, don't we?" This was, I took it, Willoughby's early conquest of Eliza Williams, the event that will later explain Colonel Brandon's deep hostility to him, though it could be simply that Davies just wants to infuriate the Janeites with a bit of gratuitous heavy-breathing. He knows he can't go as far as the current Armstrong and Miller sketch, in which quadrille-dancing Regency types exchange florid sex talk in the ballroom, but short of that, he'll always do his best to unloosen the stays and let the hair down. In this, he isn't entirely out of step with other adapters of Jane Austen, who often proceed as if they secretly wished that their author had been one of the Bronté sisters.

This was no exception: all romantic Sturm und Drang in the opening moments, with galloping horses and a dramatic death-bed scene, as Mr Dashwood died, leaving behind perilously ambiguous instructions about how his wife and daughters were to be assisted. Marianne, who doesn't like Pope but thrills to Byron, would have liked this beginning - with extreme close-ups and expressive skids of focus - and, broadly speaking, the prejudice of the age goes in her favour. Elinor, on the other hand, would have been far more interested in Austen's beginning, a careful and unemotional exposition of the predicament in which the Dashwoods find themselves dependent on their half-brother's feeble sense of duty.

The adapter usually gets the credit for the success or failure of a classic serial, particularly if, like Davies, they enjoy a bit of adultery. But the casting director really should get a bit of credit too, just as capable of reframing a well-loved classic and just as critical to its emotional success. In this case, Kate Rhodes James has done well. As Elinor, Hattie Morahan might not be quite as pretty as popular taste expects, but prettiness is not the point of Elinor, and Morahan's intelligence and courage grew on you exactly as they should. Mark Gatiss made an efficiently despicable John Dashwood, nudged into selfishness by his wife, Fanny, a sharp, insinuating gimlet who winkles the Dashwoods out of Norland, nicely played by Claire Skinner. David Morrissey struck me as just right for Colonel Brandon too: awkward and big enough to look clumsy in the low-ceilinged cottage to which the Dashwoods are reduced, but with all that manliness in reserve for the moment that Marianne finally understands that he has a problem with the vocabulary of feeling not with the feelings themselves. That's where the heart of the novel lies, in the distinction between an open display of emotion and its containment, and Morrissey is very good at deadpan pain. The most lovable character so far, though, was Mark Williams's Sir John, the distant cousin who helps the Dashwoods out. Gatiss's performance was a performance: there was a faint sense throughout that he was wondering whether he looked the part. But as Sir John, Williams simply spilled on to the screen, an English gentlemen who fears nothing because his annual income is guaranteed and he doesn't care a jot about fashion. The adaptation was pretty good too, once that initial silliness was out of the way and it came to its senses.

There was a certain sense-and- sensibility vibe to Jam and Jerusalem too, and not just because of the alliterative title. The first episode of the second series had a certain amount of housekeeping to do, getting us back up to speed with the characters and their interlocking irritations. But it also contained a subplot in which Sal's son, James (played by David Mitchell), was tutored in bedside manner by his mother. He was all sense, she was trying to impart a bit of sensibility, so that he can pass on bad news with a bit of eye contact and inner warmth. Part of the comedy was concerned with how hopeless he is at this, then the anniversary of her husband's death suddenly struck at Sal and he had to give her comfort for real, the exercise melting into genuine consolation.

It was an unusual thing for a comedy to do, and it worked. Of course, it helped that you knew you'd probably have a joke to turn to when you'd done your bit for emotional depth - like a dolphin getting a herring after going through a hoop - and fortunately the jokes, and the performances, were still worth the effort. I particularly liked Rosie Cavaliero's wet grief counsellor, expelling little moans of audible compassion in the belief that it was helpful rather than infuriating. "Heart of gold, but all the charisma of a flip-flop," as someone said.

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