"Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other..."
In 1972, the BBC created what has been called "The best of the early Austen adaptations", with their production of Emma
. The third in their series of Austen films, BBC recruited the veteran writing/producing team of Martin Lisemore and Denis Constanduros (who had previously worked on Sense and Sensibility
, in 1971. Denis Constanduros would later return to write the outline for 1985’s script of Sense and Sensibility
.). With the help of director John Glenister (known for his other BBC projects, including A Touch of Frost
and Hetty Wainthrop Investigates
), they put together a funny, accurate portrayal of Jane Austen’s fourth novel.
While much of the cast seems a bit old for their parts, John Carson (Mr. Knightley) was 45 and Doran Godwin (Emma Woodhouse) well into her thirties, they did provide, looks aside, excellent portrayals of their characters. Donald Eccles (Silas Marner, 1985), I think, gives a consummate performance as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. He seems to be lifted directly out of the book. The perfect invalid, longing to be a bother to no one, but afraid for everyone. Mrs. Elton (Fiona Walker) is perfectly vulgar. A triumph! Miss Bates is properly distracted.
Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith are not quite so well cast. Jane remains looking pale and sickly throughout, and Harriet comes away looking like a total ninny. One wonders how Emma could stand having her around. She may have cured her of her schoolgirl’s giggle, but not, at least in this version, of her nervous ramblings and indecision. She has been likened to a kitten, all soft and playful and full of wonder, though I found her more akin to a hummingbird, flitting here and there, always a bit rattled.
Perhaps the most famous of the cast members would be Constance Chapman as Mrs. Goddard. Better known for her years as Mrs. Slocomb on Are You Being Served
, she manages to play a kindly older woman quite suited to a school full of girls-- all while keeping her hair a rather sedate shade of brown.
Overall, the acting is so good, and the script so attuned to the book, that you begin to focus on the story line and even forget about the age question! Some fans were amazed by this quality and said of John Carson, that by the end of the film, they thought him to be quite handsome and were in love with him as well! The exchanges between Emma and Mr. Knightley are lively and wonderfully acted. They really seem to be friends, and carry off their exchanges with a playfulness missing in other versions.
Also included in this version are scenes which, for the sake of time, were not added to the later films. Mrs. Weston’s confinement, Harriet’s trip to London, and Tea at the Vicarage are all given full coverage. Because this version is nearly twice as long as it’s counterparts, they also have time to expand on Harriet’s romantic mishaps and Frank and Jane’s secret liaison. The dialogue, which is often quite humorous, gives the actors a chance to express a full range of feeling. Almost as much is told by what is not
said! Facial expressions and double entendre are a valuable part of this production.
While this may not be the most visually stunning of all Emma
adaptations, it is very apparent that great attention was given to detail. It is obvious that this was filmed on television sets, and the outdoor scenes do leave a lot to be desired. Much of this, however, like the actors themselves, soon becomes of no consequence, as you are swept away by the storyline and acting ability shown.
The costumes in the film were designed by Joan Ellacot. Her goal was to make the actors, and indeed the whole production "look as genuine and real as possible." Towards that end, she chose to replicate the looks of 1815. *
"It's easy for today's audiences to dismiss the old BBC costumes as "polyester specials" because of the dating and dulling effects of the videotape and harsh fluorescence used in taping. However, most of the designs used in this production were well-researched and carefully selected. Many of the costumes were reused in later BBC productions during the 1970's, notably the 1979 version of Pride & Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie. As with the other Emmas, the design team chose styles, colors, and accessories to indicate class, age, and personality. Harriet wears youthful, patterned frocks in soft colors and bright bonnets. Emma wears regal styles in sophisticated colors, including an ermine-lined cape and a maroon spencer with appliqued designs. Mrs. Weston wears somber colors in modest styles."
Emma is available on video in both PAL and VHS form from 20th Century Fox and BBC Video. It, like the other early BBC adaptations is sold as a two tape set and runs for 257 mins.
*From Kali Pappas’ "Emma Page".
Laura Sauer is a collector of Jane Austen Films and film memorabilia. She also runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories.
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