Monday, September 12, 2005

For a dead chick she sure gets a lot of press



Period detail
Pride And Prejudice is back on the box and the big screen, opening a season that's bustling with costume dramas.

John Robinson examines the formula
Saturday September 10, 2005
The Guardian

Note the excellent use of prosthetic hair ... Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in the latest adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: UIP

Much as you'll seldom find a TV company that admits to making a soap, you'll seldom find an actor happy to talk about their role in a period drama. "Of course," they will say, fearful of typecasting and a life of brittle drawing-room dialogue in a frock coat, "nearly everything's a period drama when you think about it." And grudgingly, one could concede their point.

The fact remains, however, that from serial drama to Merchant Ivory film, there's a certain type of period drama that continues to appeal to British people and to broadcast the appeal of a certain type of Britishness all over the world. Whatever its title, it will comprise an adaptation of a classic literary work. From its cast to its theme tune, to its film stock, it will be about quality. Ultimately it will have, and may even be about, class. In fact, to make a great period drama almost requires a formula.

And these are some of the things one might need.

1. A big houseEg: Brideshead, Hetton (A Handful Of Dust), Howards End
Generally the tale of land-rich, cash-poor gentry in a time of social transition, the ideal period drama will take place in an ugly and impractical estate with a series of preposterously named rooms. Provides admirable context for the concerned family, but also the chance to illustrate to the viewer their social remove with prole-baffling instructions to their butler. "Now, Palmer. Mr Willis felt selfconscious in Guinevere, but feels he could really let himself go in Sir Galahad. See to it, would you?" These days, of course, things have changed. The toffs are out, you can have a seaweed wrap and spa in the Chinese drawing room, and the coach parties are at the gate with their egg sandwiches, wondering where the toilets are.

2. Helena Bonham CarterEg: Room With A View, Howards End
The paradigm of the headstrong girl who won't be told, Helena Period Drama has moved on, but the genre which she ruled has refused. Indeed, headstrong girls who won't be told since (Shirley Henderson's Marie Melmotte in W the Way We Live Now; Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet) continue to bear something of her stamp. Ungovernable hair, not easily restrained beneath a bonnet, was HBC's visual shorthand to suggest the strong-willed woman and her latent sexuality - a tough style to shake. Now chiefly plays neurotic chainsmokers with grey teeth. Which must make a nice change. EDITOR’S NOTE: PASSING THE TORCH TO THE NEXT GENERATION OF WOMEN WITH WILLFUL HAIR.

3. Pronounced eccentricityEg: Sebastian Flyte, Anthony Blanche
In some ways a feature of Bonnet Autopilot, the period drama will traditionally make great hay with the eccentricity of some of its characters. There's Sebastian Flyte, of course. But other discernible general types would have to include "the Bumbler" ("Goodness me, I'm all of a to-do, you must think me an awful scatterbrain...") and "the Colonel", who will rise from port wine stupor to deliver fractured dialogue in the manner of Mark E Smith ("Agreeable pheasant. What?"). As much as the locations, eccentricity performs an important National Trust function: touching the same part of the brain that makes visiting Americans describe tiny hamlets (eg: London, Manchester) as "quaint". EDITOR’S NOTE: OF COURSE ‘PRONOUNCED ECCENTRICITY’ IS OFTEN CODE FOR HOMOSEXUALITY OR ALCOHOLISM OR SOME OTHER UNSPEAKABLE SIN.

4. The 19th/20th centuryEg: Bleak House, Oliver Twist, etc
You can remake the Elizabeth I story all you want - no one will be feeling a show where chicks have wooden teeth. The 19th century, though? Now you're really sending out copperplate invitations to a man with £5,000 a year. It gave us enduringly British things such as the north/south divide, soap and the industrial accident, but most importantly, the 19th century gave us the hang-up and the thin veil of civility. And that's something nearly everyone can work with.

5. Bonnet autopilotEg: Alison Steadman in Pride And Prejudice
An essential part of any period drama. In a few weeks they'll be back doing voiceovers for the NSPCC - in the meantime, some actors take the opportunity to wheel out the stock mannerisms and voices they've been "doing" for years. Particularly look out for needless rolling of the letter "r", a transparent relishing of anachronistic language, and, among young women, a slightly hysterical girlish delight at the suggestion of tea/embroidery/ reading in church. Queen of autopilot in this manner is Alison Steadman, whose Mrs Bennet in Pride And Prejudice was played as a generic fishwife with a voice so piercing you could hear it even after you'd changed channel. EDITOR’S NOTE: LOL. (FOR HOUSTON THESPS, THINK MARCY BANNER BUT BETTER ABLE TO HANDLE DIALECT?)

6. Piano sceneEg: Brideshead Revisited, Pride And Prejudice
Much as it is in the music of Elton John, the piano in the period drama is most often a site of pronounced social discomfort. The unmarriageability of a daughter may be suggested by how she talentlessly batters the ivories with her sausage-like fingers. It may hold an audience captive. More often, it's a feature of scenes when we are introduced to a community, at which female characters may display overplayed girlish delight and about which, with thunderous aspect, Colin Firth may prowl. Howards End, interestingly, has no piano scene. It has one where there's a lecture about a piano.

7. Ancient leisure pursuitsEg: The hunt
What is class, if not a toff on a horse? In period dramas, ancient pursuits such as the hunt have a million narrative functions. But on the sly, they also speak well about the authenticity of the production. In fact, they say you are so mad for authenticity, you spent the licence fee getting Colin Firth to charge about on a horse, his shirt flapping smoulderingly. On a reduced scale, this effect can be achieved with other arcane posh pursuits. These are available for the modest budget (croquet), and also come in economy ("Do you bezique?"). EDITOR’S NOTE: BEZIQUE?

8. Prosthetic hairEg: Sideburns, moustache
"I remember it," said Jeremy Irons of making Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant's Woman, "as a summer of having facial hair stuck on and ripped off constantly." No wonder: prosthetic (or if James Wilby is in your cast, astonishingly floppy hair) is still the most outward display that we are watching something depicting another era. So much so, one now recognises Matthew MacFadyen is Mr Darcy not by anything he says, but by his Firth-style sideburns. Are they the same ones?

9. Long scenesEg: Brideshead Revisited, Pride And Prejudice
Played well, the period drama is a long game. Ideally straddling all of the autumn season with a cricket sweater/frock coat draped over its shoulders, a good one can afford to take its time. Hence long scenes of formal dancing, and frail girls hoiking blood into handkerchiefs, while bearing their hardship with good grace. In Brideshead Revisited, the only part of the book not filmed was, according to Jeremy Irons, "Charles Ryder's inter-university trip to Belgium". EDITOR’S NOTE: OF COURSE, THAT WAS A MULTI-MULTI-PART SERIES. (BESIDES, ‘STATELY’ DOESN’T JUST DESCRIBE THE MANOR, BUT THE MANNER, RIGHT? TO GET US IN THE MOOD?)

10. A knightEg: Sir John Gielgud
Knightly thesps are thin on the ground now, but a septuagenarian treader of the boards once added a magnificent authority to the period drama. Never was this done better than by Sir John Gielgud. In Chariots Of Fire, he helped divert attention from the fact that this was a film about a Christian running. In Brideshead Revisited, he stole every scene with his portrayal of Charles Ryder's father - to the great annoyance of Sir Laurence Olivier, playing Lord Marchmain. With McKellen mired in orcs, these days one simply sends for Dame Judi Dench, and waits for the Baftas to roll in.

A word in your ear
The jargon of period drama

"Smouldering" Colin Firth with sideburns.

"Faithful adaptation" Only chopped out the small characters.

"Much-loved" A-level set text

"Sumptuous" Over-budget

"Anniversary edition" Remake/ Hollywood film coming

· Pride And Prejudice is out Friday. The 1995 TV version restarts Tue, 7pm, BBC4 (also on DVD, £19.99) Brideshead Revisited is out on DVD on Sep 19 (£39.99)


Now you can try dating, Austen style
By Hannah Betts

First it was Mars and Venus, then The Rules, and now, in a novel take on the dating game, Lauren Henderson has used the courtship rituals in Jane Austen’s fiction to create a guide to snaring modern-day Mr Darcys.

Hannah Betts discovers how to pull the Regency way.

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a self-help manual.

The latest to take the US by storm, and heading any moment to these shores, has as its premise not Martians versus Venusians, or playing by The Rules, but the dating doctrines of Regency England. With chapters entitled “Don’t Play Games”, and “Be Witty… but Not Cruel”, Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating encourages the reader to quash her inner Lydia or Marianne and find love as an Elizabeth Bennet. Albeit that the Brads and the Joes at which these latter-day Lizzies set their caps appear rather less compelling than Fitzwilliam Darcy. EDITOR’S NOTE: A)IF THEY WERE ALL DARCYS, PLAYING ELIZABETH WOULD BE A SNAP, AND B)HOW MANY WOMEN HAVE THE SPARKLE OR WIT TO PULL OFF A TRUE ELIZABETH BENNET?

This exhortation to trade Wonderbras for empire lines is, appropriately enough, the brainchild of a Brit. On the face of it, novelist Lauren Henderson is an unlikely candidate to be calling for a return to romance, hailed as she has been as “the dominatrix of the British crime scene”, as founder of the “tart noir” detection genre with her heroine, Sam Jones.

But, then, Henderson, 38, may have lived in New York long enough to have taken up the obligatory trampolining class featured in Sex and the City, but she remains English to the bone, spattering her conversation with fruity boarding-schoolisms such as “awfully”, “yummy” and “darling”.

I’ve tried terribly hard to hang on to my accent,” she admits in a plummy purr, “fully aware that it is really rather strategic in New York. EDITOR’S NOTE: IF ATTILA THE HUN HAD HAD A BRIT ACCENT, HE WOULD HAVE GONE MUCH FURTHER IN THE WORLD. (IMHO…) I MEAN, I WOULD HAVE DATED HIM, FOR SURE. (NOT ENOUGH OF AN INCENTIVE FOR HIM?)

A precocious child, with her nose in Gone with the Wind at the age of five, Henderson grew up in London and studied English at Cambridge, where she penned an undergraduate thesis on courtship rituals in Jane Austen. After five years as a jobbing journalist on everything from indie music magazines to Marxism Today, our heroine eloped to Italy to write her first novel. It was a canny move. In ten years she has published ten books, be it feisty chick lit (or “romantic comedies of modern love and manners” as the Austen jacket favours) or Sam Jones misadventures.

Her fans adore her (witness the rapturous reader reviews on Amazon), sales are robust, and now the Austen manual has gone through the roof.

I ask her to repress British modesty for a moment and tell me quite how well the guide has fared. She writhes unhappily: “I can’t not be English about it. I’m sooo bad at showing off. I’d far prefer to tell you about my intimate sexual history.” EDITOR’S NOTE: OH PLEASE DON’T. (AND HOW VERY AMERICAN OF HER. SHE NEEDS TO RETURN TO ENGLAND AND REGAIN A SENSE OF RESTRAINT AND DECORUM)

Sexual history undelved, I can reveal that the book has sold 60,000 copies. A further index of its success can be found in its having been optioned as a movie by writer Kiwi “Legally Blonde” Smith; an accolade which cannot be claimed by many dating manuals. Shooting begins this year.
The book’s appearance at the same time as the new film version of Pride and Prejudice has done nothing to damage sales. As a girl, Henderson put on puppet shows with its director, Joe Wright. “The movie’s a coincidence, but it is insanely good timing,” she concedes.

The guide started life as an article for a British newspaper, a more intriguing take on that perennial chestnut, the perils of the dating scene. We tend to think of the Regency milieu as comprising a set of elaborately encoded social rituals, but our own raises equally as many etiquette quirks. Where to meet someone, how best to ask them out, when to have intercourse, how best to transform a romance into a relationship? On the face of it, women’s lives should be easier, what with the vote, the Pill, and the ability to establish one’s independence away from intolerable relatives such as Mrs Bennet.

Why is it, then, that many of them are still finding their emotional lives so difficult?

“Of course, our lives are easier in many ways,” agrees Henderson, “and you get to sow your wild oats, which is important. But in Austen’s time everyone knew what the rules were.
You couldn’t receive a letter from a man unless you were engaged to him. Even Marianne Dashwood’s jumping up to see who was ringing the doorbell was considered dubious. We can look at that and say ‘how suffocating’. But everyone knew exactly where they were.
Nowadays, we know that there are some rules, but no one really knows what they are or which, if any, the other person is applying.”

The New York dating scene is particularly notorious, subject of more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy assassination.

In the Eighties, we were told that a woman was more likely to be slaughtered in a terrorist attack than marry over the age of 40 (and this pre 9/11); a statistic roundly disproved.

Sex and the City simultaneously celebrated and denigrated the choices that women might feel available to them. And even British misanthrope Toby Young piled in with a male perspective on the impossibility of Big Apple romance. Today, even thirtysomething New Yorkers are made to feel like so many Anne Elliots (the stoical heroine of Persuasion), relegated to the shelf should they be sans solitaire by the age of 28.

The Rules, authored by mighty-tressed double act, Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, marked the apotheosis of such paranoia. In many ways, the pair offered a Nineties spin on the Fifties ethos of not putting out until securing the ring. Recommendations that women avoid appearing too interested by restricting calls with an egg timer and never accepting a Saturday night date later than Wednesday were key. Followers were to avoid intimidating suitors by never saying anything too clever, amusing or even vaguely interesting. EDITOR’S NOTE: FORTUNATELY, FOR WOMEN ACTUALLY STUPID ENOUGH TO FOLLOW THIS DRIVEL, SAYING ANYTHING ‘TOO CLEVER OR AMUSING OR VAGUELY INTERESTING’ WAS UNLIKELY ANYWAY. SO IT WASN’T MUCH OF A STRAIN.

The Stepford act was to be continued after the goal of marriage had been achieved. Wily wives were encouraged to remain aloof, to the point where they could even hint that they might be having affairs. One of its authors has since divorced, which has not prevented The Rules spawning a flourishing sub-genre of imitators: how to bend The Rules, buck The Rules, how to make Rules girls sleep with you regardless.

In many ways, Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating is a bitch-slap to Fein and Schneider, albeit one delivered with a Janeite gloved hand. Its central recommendations may sound uncontentious – ditch the power games, make your interest clear, don’t go overboard, look for someone who can bring out your best qualities – but for the post-Rules dating scene they are radical in the extreme.

Henderson did her homework and immersed herself in the alternate reality that is the self-help world. “I went out and bought The Rules and Mars and Venus. The weird thing is that there’s quite a lot of sense in them and then there’s some absolute insanity. The good thing about The Rules is that it tells you to pace yourself and not go crazy about somebody by the third date. The rest is Fifties madness.”

In the matter of marriage, she draws a distinction between the gold-digging marital mania prevalent in Manhattan, and British women’s less obsessive, less materialistic response. “They know the different cuts, the women here, the carats, their ring sizes. They’re like: how big, what style? Blah, blah, blah.” EDITOR’S NOTE: YES, FIRST SUGGESTION? GET OUT OF NEW YORK. (THE MOST SMALL-TOWN PROVINCIAL METROPOLIS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE)

Henderson’s attitude is that the city makes a great place to seek romance – the number and calibre of potential people “out there”, the assertive date-making attitude – but not a terrific place to be in a relationship. “People don’t have dinner parties, it’s more difficult to nest”; which is why she will be bringing her New York boyfriend, soon to be husband, home to the UK.
Enter Mr Greg Stroud, a 40-year-old film video editor, whom Lauren met most unAusten-like on the net after finishing the manual’s first draft (a year and two months ago, as they are both able to tell me; one senses that they could also reveal the number of days).

He is The One. He is very much The One,” beams Henderson. The two are utterly charming together: palpably in love, while being sufficiently witty to allay nausea. Greg is that winning combination, the chivalrous new man. EDITOR'S NOTE: THE HECK WITH ALL THIS CAREER GOAL STUFF; I WANT ME ONE OF THESE! (I'M MORE LIKELY TO FIND A CAREER? AS ELUSIVE AS THAT CURRENTLY SEEMS?)

With his pink-striped shirt, admiration for my accessories and deft sushi-ordering abilities, he is, in his own words, impeccably “metrosexual”, or, in his girlfriend’s, “fabulously gay vague”. At the same time, he is also a consummately chivalrous filler of glasses and hailer of taxicabs. EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘GAY VAGUE’ IS A GOOD THING? CAUSE I KNOW LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE GAY AND RATHER VAGUE. (OR IS THAT NELLY AND DOTTY?)

I am a little bit old-fashioned,” he reveals. “I open doors and help Lauren on with her cardie.” The two are yet to move in (incompatible felines), but will marry shortly. Meanwhile, they are caught in an entirely unvicious circle of soppiness, followed by apologies for soppiness, followed by yet more sop.

I could tell he was a Henry almost before I met him,” reflects Lauren contentedly, referring to Henry Tilney, hero of Northanger Abbey, and thereby introducing us to one of the guide’s central themes: that everyone can be categorised according to a Jane Austen character.EDITOR’S NOTE: AND ALSO AS A WINNIE-THE-POOH CHARACTER. (ONE OF MY PERSONAL PHILOSOPHIES/PSYCH PROFILE CREATIONS) ALTHOUGH THAT ONE IS NOT QUITE AS HELPFUL FOR DATING I GUESS….

Women have their pick of Anne Elliot, Jane, Lydia or Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford or Marianne Dashwood; while chaps can be Edward Ferrers, a Colonel Brandon/Mr Knightley/ Edmund Bertram fusion, a Captain Wentworth/Henry Tilney/Mr Bingley type, Mr Darcy, a Frank Churchill/Willoughby, or an incorrigible Mr Wickham/Henry Crawford.

The device is introduced by means of a pair of pop quizzes, together with novel and character breakdowns (not all of Henderson’s readers are Austen conversant). Their creator believes herself to be a Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park’s bitchy cynic, her Maryness softened by Stroud’s Tilneyesque niceness. (She sells herself short.) Ten years ago, she confesses, she might have picked a Willoughby, the flirt who destroys the happiness of Sense and Sensibility’s daffily romantic Marianne.

It is a diverting motif, and one that genuinely allows the reader to think outside the relationship box (Tony Blair, I decide, is Lizzy’s loathed Mr Collins; Jude Law a pure Crawford/Wickham blend). “Without wanting to go too psycho about it,” explains Henderson, “you only meet the right person when you’re in the right emotional place.

The reason the quiz is there is that I know how hard it is being honest with yourself. There’s no point looking for Mr Right when all you want is Mr Right Now. If you are Lydia, then go out and have a wonderful time, and perhaps in five years you will have become an Elizabeth.”

She has tested and re-tested the questionnaires, determining them failsafe. I wonder, but then I am still smarting from being outed as a Marianne, despite striving for Elizabeth; my partner, a Knightley, rather than my beloved Wentworth.

Is Henderson’s elevation of pre-Victorian romance an indication that she feels that feminism might have done the heart some damage? “Hell, no, but I do think girls have taken to behaving too laddishly.” She cites, by way of example, women’s reluctance to let men pick up the tab. “America has taught me that it is quite nice being courted. Every single man who ever put himself out a bit for me has been a solid keeper. And, goodness, I’m an English girl, I don’t make them jump through hoops.”

Greg, in a moment of chivalrous unchivalry, literally elbowed her out of the way when she merely endeavoured to pay for coffee after their first date, becoming “seriously grumpy”.
Grumpiness is no less a quality that one associates with Janeites, protective, as they are, of their bonneted idol.

In fact, Austen’s most ardent enthusiasts have been extremely welcoming, respecting that the guide’s author knows her source. Can we take it that, trampoline and tart noir notwithstanding, Henderson is a frustrated Regency heroine? Does she secretly wish herself in Emma or Elinor’s dancing shoes?

“I love the era in theory; in practice I could not have borne it. To take a three-mile walk and cause a scandal by having mud on your skirt! That’s why everyone rode so much. They had to escape.” She rises to her theme. “And, of course, everyone married so young – gosh, that’s the other thing. I mean, I’m really enjoying myself right now. My life would have been over in any kind of meaningful, romantic way ten years ago, at least.”

We both succumb to a shiver over what, or whom, might have been in such circumstances; particularly without any means of literary profiling.

Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating, by Lauren Henderson is published by Headline on September 5 and is available from Books First priced £9.49 (RRP £9.99) free p&p on 0870 160 8080;


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