The Weekend's TV: Miss Austen Regrets, SUN, BBC1
Love Soup, SAT, BBC1
Jane plainly needed lots of persuasion
Monday 28 April 2008
As the plot of a Jane Austen novel, the plot of Jane Austen's life leaves a lot to be desired. True, it has big country houses, and trips to town, it has dances and visits and gossip and even a slender roster of potential suitors. But it lacks the consummation of Emma or Pride and Prejudice, the sealing fantasy – which Austen herself surely understood as an illusion – that a marriage is the same thing as a happy ending. Still, in the absence of an undiscovered Austen three-decker, the life may have to do, as it did in last year's film Becoming Jane and as it does in Gwyneth Hughes's drama Miss Austen Regrets, which offers us the writer not as Olympian observer of mortal agonies but as a vulnerable mortal herself, unprotected against the fevers of romance even by the antibodies of her own sharp fictions.
There are consolations in such an enterprise, of course, one of them being that she can supply quite a few of the lines herself. Hughes has been through the correspondence with a fine ivory comb, so that when Miss Austen muttered something waspish about an acquaintance's "coarse mother and... sisters like horses", or when she breathily described a young doctor as "something between a man and an angel", the words that were being put into her mouth were at least her own. And yet her reticence as a biographical subject still left enough elbow room for dramatic ambiguity. Were her gently mordant remarks about love and infatuation an accurate representation of her wise detachment from affairs of the heart, or did they mask a wounded sense of longing? When she announced that "the only way to get a man like Mr Darcy is to make him up", does the joke hide a wistful desire that it might have been otherwise?
Hughes built her narrative around Austen's relationship with her niece Fanny Knight, first turning to her aunt for advice on love and then, by accident, thwarting an incipient romance with Dr Charles Haden by being younger and prettier than her famous relative. Hugh Bonneville turned up as the Reverend Brook Bridges, an old flame of Jane's still- smouldering years after she'd first extinguished his hopes, while Olivia Williams played Jane, confessing her youthful flirtation with a man called Tom Lefroy to counter Fanny's accusations that she could have no direct understanding of the pangs of love. Fans of the writer who yearn for her to have had a little more sensibility and a little less sense won't have felt short-changed, with Austen gulping and weeping at various moments, as if lurve mattered far more than art. But Hughes intriguingly concluded with a contradiction of that crowd-pleasing version, suggesting that the biggest regret Austen may have had was not marrying for money when she had the chance. It was all, anyway, a good deal less embarrassing than it might have been.
David Renwick has also been attempting to farm the thin soil of romantic disillusionment in Love Soup, a series that admirably denies itself a lot of facile satisfactions but that still, nine episodes in, seems not to have found a confident rhythm. Part of the problem is Renwick's ingenuity as a comic writer and his apparently limitless ability to craft new humiliations for his characters. These are often very funny – a man being hurled out of a first-floor window into a bouncy castle, a woman trying to retrieve money from a blind busker's guitar case after being jolted into giving far too much – but they don't always strike you as having anything to do with the characters he's trying to make you believe in. In this week's episode, for example, Alice – a woman we know to have an acute sense of male unreliability – found herself being wooed by a weird German playwright who had necrophiliac tendencies. So far, so funny, particularly because he didn't speak English and they were accompanied on their date by his earnest translator. But then Alice agreed to go back to his hotel room with him, which seemed incredible.
True, the gags were loosely netted together by the idea of death, which was also explored in the filming of an obituary for a character who bore a distant resemblance to Richard Wilson (he combined hugely popular sitcom work with directing rebarbative avant-garde theatre pieces) and through the demise of Alice's relationship with Douglas. But too many of the comic ideas poked through the netting, as if Renwick had decided to jam them in even though they were the wrong shape for this narrative. You had the sense that he'd looked through his writer's notebook and collaged together every orphan idea he'd had for the past 10 years. Quite a few of them deserved a home somewhere, but all too often here you felt that the characters were propping up the gags, instead of the gags propping up the characters.
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