Jane Eyre: A new adaptation graces our screens

The BBC has been busy with another adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's epic romance. James Rampton visits the set to find out what makes this one different
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In a recent Woman's Hour poll to find the best novel of all time, Jane Eyre won hands-down. Ruth Wilson, who has been catapulted straight from drama school into the title role in BBC1's rich new four-part serial of Charlotte Brontë's classic work, admits that the book's popularity adds to the pressure.

"It's the favourite book of many of my mum's friends," gulps the 24-year-old actress, who, this time last year, was just graduating from Lamda drama school. "They're all chuffed to bits that I'm playing Jane.

"My mum plays it cooler - she tries not to let on that she's over the moon, but when I told her I'd got this part, she was dancing round the room."

But just why has this novel - which centres on the love affair between the windswept Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre, the emotionally buttoned-up governess who works for him - been so adored by readers ever since it was first published in 1847? The assumption is that female readers - like the heroine they so strongly identify with - swoon from the very first appearance of the moody Mr Rochester.

Viewers of the BBC1 serial, which has been dramatised in four parts by Sandy Welch (North and South, Our Mutual Friend), may well find themselves going weak at the knees during their first glimpse of this Mr Rochester (played by the suitably smouldering Toby Stephens). He emerges out of a thick mist on his trusty steed, which rears up and bucks its esteemed rider at the sight of Jane on the moors.

As he dusts himself down, he admonishes his new governess: "That's what happens when you bewitch a man's horse," teases Mr Rochester, sporting the long riding boots, loose-fitting white shirt and tousled hair that are the prerequisites for any tormented 19th-century leading man. Jane is instantly smitten.

I'm on the set of Jane Eyre in an appropriately atmospheric part of the Peak District. The shoot is based near Matlock at Haddon Hall, which Simon Jenkins called "the most perfect house to survive from the Middle Ages" in 1,000 Best Houses.

Susanna White, the director responsible for last year's excellent dramatisation of Bleak House, smiles mischievously as she reveals her hope that her Mr Rochester can have a comparable impact to another small-screen portrayal of a troubled hero from 19th-century literature, Mr Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

"I hope Toby will have 'the Colin Firth Effect'," she beams. "I hope he'll be a huge heart-throb. When he's in those riding boots, that's a great look. Women on the set have been drooling, and I hope women on their settees at home will be, too."

The director goes on to explain why women have always been drawn to the figure of Mr Rochester. "He's a troubled man, and, ultimately, he chooses a plain girl because he values substance over style. It's the classic story of a woman who tries to sort out a complicated man."

Diederick Santer, the producer behind last year's successful modern-day adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, agrees that the figure of Mr Rochester exerts a rare power on the public imagination. "He's every woman's fantasy man. He has a threatening past and seems untameable, but, in the end, is tamed by a girl who makes his pain go away."

Sitting in his caravan between scenes, Stephens is dressed in black trousers with white piping down the seams, a billowing white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and that pair of riding boots. The ensemble is topped off by hair extensions and real, hedgerow-sized sideburns.

The actor, who has starred in such works as Die Another Day, Cambridge Spies, Perfect Strangers, The Great Gatsby and The Queen's Sister, laughingly says that the hirsute additions have meant "it's been impossible to audition for anything else at the moment because I look so weird. I look like a smelly tramp - certainly not a fragrant vagrant."

The 37-year-old actor reckons Jane Eyre has endured because "it's an incredibly satisfying story. It's so fulfilling when two people go through a desperate journey and end up with each other."

Jane Eyre has also been a favourite of film-makers over the last century, having been adapted for the screen no fewer than 18 times, with the first - a silent film - made in 1910.

So the producers were well aware of the danger of "Eyre overkill". White concedes that "at first, I thought to myself, 'What can I do to make Jane Eyre fresh?' But once I started working on it, I realised every generation needs its own version of the story."

White is keen to underline the universality of this turbulent love story. "For me," the director observes, "there is no distance between these characters and us. It's not a tale about remote people in corsets who you can't relate to. It's a readily identifiable story about living people with genuine feelings."

Wilson also highlights Jane's modernity. "She is a modern, incredibly strong and independent heroine," says the actress. "She is a character with issues everyone can relate to. It's a story of the first love of a girl who's really suffered. Jane's an orphan who had an horrific upbringing. Her circumstances have meant she has always had to suppress her desires. Then, she is liberated by this mysterious, brooding, seemingly quite cruel man."

Wilson carries on by outlining why audiences are so compelled by the relationship between Mr Rochester and Jane. "Throughout the first half, they never tell each other what they're really thinking. Everyone has been in those sort of relationships. Jane and Rochester spend so much time dancing round each other without expressing their true feelings," she says, before laughing. "Isn't that so modern?"

Stephens, the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, adds that the sheer focus on Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester is "nerve-wracking. Most of the piece is about their relationship. It's not like Bleak House, which goes off on tangential plots. This is basically a two-hander."

He acknowledges that the intense concentration on the central couple is "quite a burden. I hope audiences can cope with us for that amount of time."

As I say goodbye to an actor who may well create "The Toby Stephens Effect" when Jane Eyre is broadcast, I think he need have no worries on that score.

'Jane Eyre' begins at 9pm on BBC1 on Sunday