Last Night's TV: Lost In Austen, ITV1
God On Trial, BBC2
Jane's world left me open to persuasion
Thursday 04 September 2008
It is a truth universally acknowledged that ITV commissioning editors are absolutely desperate to get a big ratings hit, so they must have been as giddy as a Regency spinster approaching 30 when they first saw Lost in Austen galloping over the horizon. Hybridise the dependable bonnet-and-bustle attractions of Pride and Prejudice with the left-field fantasy of Life on Mars, the thinking must have gone, and surely the result will be happy ever after. Well, they made it to the altar, but that – as any attentive reader of Jane Austen knows – is no guarantee of happiness. The reluctant time traveller in Lost in Austen is Amanda Price, an Austen devotee who uses the novels much as some women use Valium, to smooth out the disappointments of daily life. Sadly, Amanda's lacks romance. When her boyfriend eventually proposed, he accompanied it with a beery belch and used a lager ring-pull tab as the engagement ring. Her divorced mother – now in a steady relationship with Mr Pinot and Mr Grigio – suggested that she might as well settle for what she can get. "You have standards, pet," she conceded warningly. "I just hope they'll help you on with your coat when you're 70."
But Amanda wants more – and got it in trumps when there was a clatter in her bathroom and she discovered Elizabeth Bennet standing there, toying in an enchanted way with the light switch. Elizabeth explained that Amanda's tongue-and-groove panelling concealed a portal connecting her rented Hammersmith flat with one of the most famous households in English fiction. And after she popped through to take a look and the door slammed shut behind her, she found out that if you really sink into a good book, you quickly begin disturbing its consoling predictability. Amanda was thrilled to encounter Mr Bennet – a nice study in exasperation from Hugh Bonneville – and as excited as everyone else about the arrival of Mr Bingley. But then Bingley started getting cow-eyed whenever she appeared and she realised that she had to redirect his affections. Slightly mysteriously, given this ambition, she then launched herself at Bingley at the Assembly Room ball and gave him a thoroughly 21st-century snog.
Not quite enough happens in the way of culture clash. There are little dabs of historical instruction, as when Amanda asked to clean her teeth and was shown a bundle of birch twigs and a block of chalk. And there is some fun to be had with the mismatch between modern clothes and idiom and local manners. But oddly (given that the plot involves a kind of temporal exchange programme) we learn nothing of how Lizzie is getting on in west London, and the drama lacks the edge of terrified uncertainty that gave Life on Mars its extra emotional depth. At worst, Amanda simply seems exasperated that she can no longer get a mobile-phone signal, which may not be quite enough to persuade us that she really thinks this is happening at all.
It doesn't take time travel to wrench you instantly into the past. The Nazis managed it millions of times, plunging sophisticated 20th- century citizens into a primitive misery of filth and hunger. Frank Cottrell Boyce's drama God on Trial explored what such an experience might do to your moral certainties, in particular your faith in God. A group of prisoners in Auschwitz decided to put the Deity on trial, their minds concentrated by the fact that they knew that many of them would die in the next 24 hours. Playing father and son, Rupert Graves and Jack Shepherd found themselves on opposite sides in the proceedings, the former bitterly arguing for God's conviction on a charge of breach of contract, the latter moaning in distress at the blasphemy being committed. But a devout rabbi, played by Stephen Dillane, argued that there is an honourable Biblical tradition of theological disputation and took up the case for the defence. In Lost in Austen, you wouldn't have got very far if you hadn't been prepared to believe – for 50 minutes at least – in time travel. Here you didn't need to believe in God to take the drama seriously, only to believe in men's belief.
And the result – given the hazards of such an enterprise, its multiple risks of exploitation and false sentiment – was very good indeed, gripping both by means of theological debate and unexpected revelation. Every now and then you saw Antony Sher, davening silently in a corner of the barracks. Like a loaded gun in a Chekhov play, you knew he was going to go off eventually and that it would be significant when he did, and indeed it was his explosive inventory of God's biblically attested crimes that finally swung the judges in favour of a guilty verdict. The last 30 seconds of the drama allowed viewers who could not live with this adjudication to imagine that an appeal might be successful.
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