New three-part BBC series based on PD James's sequel turns Pride and Prejudice into a whodunnit.
Photographs by Robert Viglasky
By Sally Williams - 18 Dec 2013
Filming in the grounds of Chatsworth House
At first, all you can take in of Hardcastle Crags, near Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, is its unspoilt beauty. Steeply rising wooded slopes look down on a rocky valley with a river winding on ahead. You could spend a very pleasant day here eating ice cream, walking along footpaths, admiring the ancient oaks and unexpected vistas without suspecting for one moment that the area is the scene of a horrific murder.
Death Comes to Pemberley, the BBC three-part series based on the PD James novel of the same name, which, in turn, is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, is a plush hybrid of period drama and murder mystery. Written by Juliette Towhidi, directed by Daniel Percival, and shot in the grand estates of Chatsworth House and Castle Howard, it features a stellar cast: Matthew Rhys as Fitzwilliam Darcy, the owner of Pemberley, one of the largest estates in Derbyshire; Anna Maxwell Martin as his wife, Elizabeth (née Bennet); Matthew Goode as George Wickham, the serial seducer who eloped with Elizabeth’s younger sister Lydia; Rebecca Front as Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth’s silly, prattling mother; Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, the magistrate; and Penelope Keith as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s icy aunt.
The cast between takes
Set in 1803, six years after the main events of Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet – the most spirited of five sisters of modest means – loathes, tolerates and then falls for arrogant and wealthy Mr Darcy. Not that Elizabeth would ever settle for anything less than love, despite marriage being her only chance of a secure future. ‘When you die, Mr Bennet, which may in fact be very soon, our girls will be left without a roof to their head nor a penny to their name,’ Mrs Bennet reminds her husband in Austen’s novel.
Darcy and Elizabeth now have two young sons and are happily married amid the comfort and elegance of Pemberley (cue scenes filled with parklands, vistas and richly furnished interiors). It is the eve of the Pemberley Ball – an excuse to show the Pemberley tradition still holds despite Mr Darcy’s unconventional bride – and below stairs is decked to the hilt with plucked fowl, tartlets and jellies.
The film at this point is still a period piece, with the household retiring for the evening to the drawing room. There’s Darcy and Elizabeth, her parents, Darcy’s beautiful younger sister, Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), and her two suitors: Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), Darcy’s cousin, whose castle and earldom is of no interest to Georgiana, who has fallen for Henry Alveston (James Norton), an overworked young lawyer from London. (Pride and Prejudice devotees will recognise a familiar theme here – the conflict between love and money, passion and prudence.)
James Norton with Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgiana Darcy
Georgiana once fancied herself in love with Wickham – his attempted seduction of Georgiana, then a vulnerable 15-year-old, is a sub-plot in Pride and Prejudice – but now realises her lucky escape. ‘It was the money he was after,’ she tells Elizabeth (who was also stirred by Wickham’s charm and lies some years before).
Now Wickham is back on the scene. And what makes this story distinctly PD Jamesian is what happens next. Two burning lights can be seen swaying wildly from side to side, moving at high speed towards the house. The doors of a carriage are flung open and a woman tumbles out. It is Lydia screaming that her husband is dying in the woods. The men of the house leap on their horses and find Wickham drunk, bloodstained, and babbling a confession beside the body of his friend Captain Denny. ‘I killed him!’ he weeps. Is Wickham really a murderer? Darcy finds it hard to believe. Yet the hermetic seal on life at Pemberley is broken and things fall apart between Elizabeth and Darcy as past is revealed of which Elizabeth knew nothing.
‘There’s an endless fascination with Pride and Prejudice. And the combination of that with PD James was a delicious prospect,’David Thompson, the producer and head of Origin Pictures, says of the appeal of Death Comes to Pemberley. In other words, Austen plus PD James is pleasure squared. ‘What I love is that it’s a narrative about the complexity of human relationships and people haunted by their past in ways they find difficult to articulate,’ Daniel Percival, who first worked with Thompson on the film Dirty War (2004), about a terrorist bomb attack in London, says. ‘It’s a psychological drama and a really good whodunnit.’
Daniel Percival, the director of BBC's Death Comes to Pemberley
'I am a little ambivalent about sequels,’ PD James says when we meet at her home in west London. She certainly has zero interest in anyone writing a sequel to any of her 18 or so novels, or transplanting her best-loved creation, the poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh. ‘But I wanted to combine my two great enthusiasms in life – for writing detective fiction and for Jane Austen – and I hoped this would be a happy marriage in more ways than one.’
Pride and Prejudice was written by Austen, a rural parson’s daughter with no formal education, in 10 months, when she was in her early 20s, and published exactly 200 years ago. There seemed little chance that anyone would remember the novel or its author 200 years later but in fact Darcy and Lizzie have reached almost mythological status. There have been adaptations (Laurence Olivier in the film, 1940; Colin Firth in the BBC series, 1995; Matthew Macfadyen in another film, 2005), variations (stage, concept album, web series), and modernisations (Bridget Jones; the Bennet family as Anglo-Jews).
‘Why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?’ asks Martin Amis in Force of Love, an essay on Pride and Prejudice (The Atlantic, 1990). ‘And even more mysteriously, this tizzy of zealous suspense actually survives repeated readings.’
Because in Pride and Prejudice Austen ‘gives us everything we want: the wittiest lines, the silliest fools, the most lovable heroine, the handsomest estate. And a hero who is not only tall and good-looking, but the richest and most well-born man in sight. He is also a kind of an asshole, which makes it even better,’ William Deresiewicz, the essayist, critic and author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, concludes.
Matthew Rhys as Mr. Darcy
‘Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me,’ is Darcy’s humiliating verdict of Lizzie the first time they meet. And yet Lizzie wins him over. ‘Her victory comes – and with it, ours – when he’s made to recant and repent,’ Deresiewicz writes. Darcy and Elizabeth ‘are the archetypes of the way we want to be: clever but good, fallible and forgiven, glamorous, amorous and very, very happy.’
PD James wrote Death Comes to Pemberley when she was 90 (she is now 93) as light relief. ‘I’d had it in the back of my mind for some time. I’d finished a very long and very successful detective story, The Private Patient, and I thought, will I have the energy and strength to write another this length?’ Her mysteries, which are thoroughly researched (informed by her former career as a magistrate and police adviser in the Home Office) typically take three years to write. ‘I thought, perhaps it’s time to turn to this other idea.’
Death Comes to Pemberley is both a homage to Austen, and a reprimand. ‘I wanted to tackle some of the problems of plot that I saw in Pride and Prejudice,’ she explains. For example, ‘It’s a great mystery to me why Darcy took his 15-year-old sister, a girl who is particularly nervous and shy and bereft of a mother, out of school and placed her in the sole charge of the terrible Mrs Young, who immediately plans, of course, to get her seduced by Wickham so that she can get his hands on her money. I thought, if I had the spirit of Jane Austen with me, I would have said, Miss Austen with all respect, what were you thinking of?’
James Norton as Henry Alveston, Rhys, Matthew Goode as Wickham and Anna Maxwell Martin
Along with a changed Darcy and Elizabeth – love has loosened and democratised him and made her less sardonic – characters parked in the sidings, come back with full force. For example, Lydia and Wickham, who at the close of Pride and Prejudice were hardly part of the story at all, are sent occasional injections of cash by Elizabeth, now the mistress of Pemberley.
Death Comes to Pemberley was ‘a joy to write,’ James says. She completed it in less than a year, and it was published in 2011 with Thompson being granted the film rights the year after. ‘We went after it in a very competitive way,’ he remembers.
‘I met the producers who were very concerned that they would use the language of the book,’ James, who was praised by critics for her Austen-like prose, recalls. ‘Then I realised that what we were going to see is not the book.’ She accepted that television is propelled by images, the simpler and more vivid the better. Although as someone with a profound aversion to inaccuracies, she thought sending Elizabeth below stairs to inspect the feast for the Pemberley Ball was a move too far. ‘PD James said, “I’m not sure the lady of the house would ever go into the kitchen, or know the servants’ names,” but we appeased her by setting it up as something she was doing only because it was the eve of the ball,’ Eliza Mellor, one of the producers, says.
Maxwell Martin and Rhys with Eliza Mellor
David Thompson chose Juliette Towhidi (best known for Calendar Girls) to do the screenplay having worked with her on Testament of Youth, the forthcoming film of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War.Her aim was ‘to strike a slightly different tone again from the book because people coming to it on TV will have certain expectations and those who know the original will want to rediscover some of its charms and delights,’ she explains. For example, Mrs Bennet, who doesn’t really play a part in James’s novel, is persuasively rendered on screen to inject some comedy. Towhidi also heightens the tension between our hero and heroine in the aftermath of the murder. ‘One of the delights of Pride and Prejudice is the friction between Elizabeth and Darcy and we wanted to play that up,’ she says.
It is a warm summer afternoon at Hardcastle Crags – the forest provided the perfect gnarly oaks and giant ferns that the producers were after – and the heavy tourist traffic has been stopped to allow for filming. It is peak season but any tourists being inconvenienced might mind slightly less if they were to hear the words ‘Darcy and Elizabeth’.
Filming in the grounds of Chatsworth House
The first thing you hear is horses’ hooves as, mirage-like, a small carriage appears in the woodland lane. Elizabeth Darcy in a teal Georgian dress and, I will later discover, rebelliously loose hair, climbs down from the carriage alone, and strides off through the woods to visit Will Bidwell, a terminally ill young man of 18 who lives on the Pemberley estate. Daniel Percival, the director, reviews the new footage on his monitor. ‘Looks great, that’s done it,’ he calls to Anna Maxwell Martin.
Maxwell Martin brings a subversive bite to the new mistress of Pemberley that cuts through the hierarchies of Pemberley life (and a cv featuring period dramas such as Bleak House, The Bletchley Circle and South Riding).
‘Playing Lizzie is the big role for most actresses,’ Maxwell Martin says. ‘She’s one of the best heroines in literature: bright, intelligent, feisty, witty… There isn’t a single word she utters in Pride and Prejudice that’s dull. But of course she’s not Lizzie any more: she’s Lizzie Darcy. And I found that really difficult to adjust to in the first week.
Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle
I constantly wanted something to do and was forever being told that other people would do things for me, which doesn’t seem very Lizzie Bennet. So it was important for me that she should be seen to be flouting certain things.’ Maxwell Martin’s impatient walk, her loosely clipped hair and simple, unshowy dresses are all designed to show that this is the same Lizzie who strode through the November mud ‘with weary ankles and dirty stockings’ to visit her sick sister Jane at Netherfield Park,
‘I didn’t want a great beauty to play Elizabeth,’ Percival says. ‘You want someone with intelligent eyes, quick wit and sharp humour: someone you just love being in the company of. Lydia and Jane are the great beauties. Elizabeth always felt in their shadow and in that way women relate to her, and men do too. It’s a great myth that we all go for beauties. We don’t.’
Anna Maxwell Martin (left) with Penelope Keith (right) as Lady Catherine
As for Darcy, Matthew Rhys strides fetchingly through Pemberley and underlines, in his own upbringing, Darcy’s new-found egalitarianism. The son of a headmaster, Rhys grew up in Cardiff and was educated in state schools before studying at the RADA in London. He is best known for playing Kevin Walker in the ABC family drama Brothers & Sisters and Dylan Thomas in The Edge of Love. ‘Matthew is enormously charismatic, and he brings this vulnerability to Darcy and yet a very confident persona at the same time.’ Percival says.
‘I always struggle with a posh English accent,’ Rhys admits. ‘We grew up with so much American television as kids. When you’re in the yard or in the garden, you’re pretending to be people from The A-Team or Knight Rider. You are never attempting to be Mr Darcy. “Let’s play Pride and Prejudice! OK, I’ll be Darcy! No, you be Lizzie, you’re good at Lizzie.”
‘I try to think of friends who naturally have the accent,’ Rhys continues, ‘because their voice is grounded and centred. My tendency is to come off my centre note when I do it, which gives you less weight and superiority. Also Darcy is incredibly emotional; he tries to give away as little as possible and that is reflected in his voice.’
Matthew Rhys as Fitzwilliam Darcy
The surprise has been how many people have asked how he will do ‘the shirt scene’ – the moment in the 1995 BBC adaptation when Colin Firth emerges from the lake in a wet shirt. It is an image so seminal it has reverberated through the years. ‘It’s like a Pavlovian romantic bulb that goes – bing!’ Rhys says. But the shirt scene, of course, is not here. Although, ‘we did consider it, almost like a homage,’ Percival says, ‘but we’re moving the story on and you want to get your audience over direct comparison as soon as possible.’
This is Percival’s first period drama, having started in documentaries and moved on to such series as Strike Back, the macho television action thriller about counter terrorism. His idea is to focus on the drama rather than faux-period stuff such as people saying ‘would not’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’. ‘We tend to look back at this time with an almost regal air and I just wanted to get on with the human story.
‘One of the joys of Austen is she draws you into her characters,’ he says. ‘She has a beautiful turn of phrase. You can’t turn the page without wanting to read more, and to honour her you have to make a film that also has those qualities.’
Death Comes to Pemberley will be shown on BBC One on December 26 at 8.15pm, December 27 at 9pm and December 28 at 9pm
Source: The Telegraph