Brontes next to scale heights of television

Novel attraction: BBC hopes 'Jane Eyre' can repeat 'Pride and Prejudice' hit

MARIANNE MACDONALD

Media Correspondent

The BBC is negotiating with Andrew Davies, the writer whose successful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice delivered audiences of 14 million last autumn, to work his magic on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

His adaptation of Jane Austen's romantic early novel delivered record figures for a BBC costume drama, a feat the corporation is hoping to repeat. If all goes according to plan, the Bronte serial will be filmed next winter and will hit the television screens in 1998.

The move signals that the frenzy for classic adaptations is moving on from Jane Austen to the Bronte sisters, authors of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall during their short and tragic lives.

The Austen revival has been fuelled not only by the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but also by the Hollywood film of Sense and Sensibility adapted by and starring Emma Thompson, which recently won the Golden Globe for best screenplay.

Davies, whose previous credits also include the lavish and critically acclaimed 1994 production of Middlemarch for the BBC, as well as the House of Cards political trilogy, is also in the frame to write a screenplay of Emma for ITV.

Alan Ayrds, the BBC's senior drama spokesman, confirmed the department was in discussion with Davies for a three- or four-part adaptation of Jane Eyre, the story of a mousey governess's unlikely romance with Rochester, her married employer.

"But it has not yet been commissioned," he added. "We will have to see how much money we have in the spring."

Ironically, BBC Education has been considering an adaptation of the same novel, to be written by Fay Weldon - who adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC's 1980 production - but this has been shelved, partly because of the potential clash with BBC serials.

A third Hollywood adaptation of Jane Eyre is also said to be underway with a big name cast to be directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

The BBC drama department is not just looking at Jane Eyre. Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is in production, while Villette, also by Charlotte, is under consideration.

"Having devoured all of Jane Austen, the sharks are moving on to the next big shoal, which would have to be the Brontes," Mr Davies said. "I hope people don't get entirely fed up with classic fiction. The sort of big numbers who watched Pride and Prejudice might drop off, but I think there's a solid constituency which really likes the idea.

"Jane Eyre is one of those books like Pride and Prejudice that is a lot of people's favourite. A lot of girls absolutely adore it, and a lot of women look back on it as one of their peak reading experiences."

Although Austen adaptations were still going strong, Mr Ayrds agreed that the Brontes would be next to experience a surge of popularity.

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