A man emerges dripping from a bath, his muscular back gleaming in the dim light. Later he rises from a lake, his wet shirt transparent against his torso. A nation of women sigh, flush, and rush out to buy the video.
This is not a semi-pornographic B-movie. This is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And with the final episode just hours away, lovelorn women and adoring marketing men are murmuring just one name: Darcy.
At the BBC they are calling it the "Darcy phenomenon". Viewing figures for the BBC series are over 10 million, while sales of the BBC video, which sold out its initial run of 12,000 within two hours of its release, have now reached 70,000.
"If you imagine Martin Chuzzlewit and Middlemarch sold between 12,000 and 20,000 each, it really is a huge phenomenon," a BBC spokeswoman said yesterday. "These videos are pounds 20 each. This only really happens with feature films and they're not as expensive."
This week the video went straight in at number eight on the Gallup top 100 videos. According to the BBC it is unheard of for a video to sell even half as well, especially when viewers are able to tape the episodes at home for free.
"The only similar success we had was Poldark but that's a nostalgia thing," the spokeswoman said.
Sales of the BBC book The Making of Pride and Prejudice have sold out, while Penguin has seen massive sales of the original. The series has already been licensed to eight broadcasters abroad, generating an extra pounds 500,000 for the BBC before the series has even finished.
"That's likely to increase even further as a result of the critical acclaim," Mary Collins of BBC Worldwide's sales department said. "We anticipate this is going to be one of the best selling programmes ever."
The reason for this unprecedented success, according to BBC insiders, is tall, dark and handsome and is currently taped to the office walls of nearly every female in Television Centre.
"We put it all down to the appeal of Darcy," the spokeswoman said. "There's no other reasoning for it. Episode four was the killer. I've never seen an actor so consistently wet." The BBC has been deluged by calls from anxious female viewers unable to wait for the final episode - or the much heralded kiss between Darcy, who is played by Colin Firth, and Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle.
"We've had people in tears, ringing us for copies. One woman called us crying yesterday because she couldn't get a copy and she was going on holiday. She was desperate to see it before she went," the spokeswoman said.
The sexual aura surrounding Firth-as-Darcy has been heightened by reports that he and Ehle were lovers off-screen at the time. Set insiders have gleefully told of "bruised lips and sexual tension" as they filmed a large number of takes to get the scene exactly right.
Aged 34, Firth stands 6ft 1in, with tousled brown hair and deep-set eyes. He is said to have been inundated with offers of work as a result of his "perfect" portrayal of the brooding hero. The evident blurring in the public psyche of Firth with Darcy was recently compounded by the actor himself. He apparently struggled with the enigmatic character before coming to the conclusion that "the only way for it to work is to be Darcy already".
Firth is currently filming in Italy. He has been back to Britain for one week since the series began and became aware of the extent of the series' success when he found himself being stopped in the street. He may also have to change his telephone number, if the persistence of his new-found fans is anything to go by.
The BBC were curiously reticent about giving out the name of his agent, ICM. "You are from the Independent, aren't you? You're not a fan?" the spokeswoman said nervously.
ICM, it emerged, is currently receiving upwards of 30 calls a day from fans.
"They're calling to find out what he's planning to do next, whether they can see him in theatre," a spokesman for ICM said wearily.
But according to the BBC the adulation of Mr Darcy has not been restricted to members of the public.
"We've had journalists and editors of national newspapers being so sweet to us over the past few days, begging us for copies of the video. All for research purposes, of course," the spokeswoman said. "We even had one national newspaper begging us for posters of Darcy to give away," she added. "The Sun? No, it was the Times, actually."
The Bennet sisters: how they have fared since the series - and what the Jane Austen Society thought of their performances
Acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company until March. She came to public attention for her role as Calypso in Channel 4's adaptation of The Camomile Lawn. More recently seen as the murdered wife Penny McCallister in the Carlton television docu-drama "Beyond Reason".
JAS rating: "I think she's totally miscast. She's a lovely, charming smiley girl with a roundish face. But Elizabeth was forceful and sharp and intelligent. Jennifer Ehle doesn't beam intelligence at you, she beams a lovely smile."
Currently filming Merchant Ivory's Surviving Picasso with Anthony Hopkins. Came to public attention through her role as the journalist Mattie in the political thriller House of Cards. Also played the girlfriend of RSC actor Iain Glen in the Euston Films series The Fear. They later married and now have a six-month-old baby, Finlay.
JAS rating: "She's a curious type. Physically she's not a "common" type - she looks rather lazy and sensual. I don't think [this] means it doesn't work. I don't think Jane Austen would have said 'no' to her."
Recently finished filming In the Bleak Midwinter with Kenneth Branagh. Most recently known for her roles playing Jennifer Saunders's serious, bespectacled offspring Saffy in the BBC comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, and Mercy Peckstaff in Martin Chuzzlewit. Ms Sawalha also spent three television series as the daughter Hannah in Second Thoughts.
JAS rating: "I suppose she's all right - she looks young and pretty. She's like a lot of girls of her age. I think it's a fair portrayal."
The daughter of actor Richard Briers (shortly to be seen in In The Bleak Midwinter with Julia Sawalha, left), she was previously with the Bristol Old Vic and hadher first big break playing Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Since she finished filming Pride and Prejudice nine months ago, she has completed another film called The Anorak, which stars Sandi Toksvig. Ms Briers is about to get married to 29-year-old actor Simon Cox. JAS rating: "She was okay as Mary. She is the studious one and I think she did that quite well."
Kitty may be seen as one of the least interesting characters in the Bennett family, and one who suffers in comparison to her incandescent and irrepressible sister Lydia. Little is known about Ms Maberly, who plays her, other than the fact that Kitty was her first major part. Agents Central Artists Management were yesterday unable to comment on her plans, other than to say that the young actress is currently studying at RADA.
JAS rating: "She was fine, I suppose. It's not the most prominent of parts."
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