The Complete Jane Austen
Novelist gets deluxe treatment as revamped Masterpiece debuts
British novelist Jane Austen will host a coming-out party for Masterpiece Theatre, the PBS series preparing to reintroduce itself to viewers next year with a major brand makeover.
This is all very fitting and proper, because Jane Austen’s work is all about proper introductions to society — and affairs of the heart that overcome the conventions of class and money that ruin many a romance.
And it doesn’t hurt that the steady clip of theatrical releases inspired by Austen novels — since August, these include Becoming Jane and The Jane Austen Book Club — has renewed appreciation for the author among chick-flick moviegoers, a key audience for Masterpiece Theatre.
To capitalize on that resurgent interest, producers assembled adaptations of all six Austen novels in next season’s nine-week PBS package The Complete Jane Austen and tied its debut to the unveiling of Masterpiece Theatre’s new three-faced identity:
- Masterpiece Classics will offer traditional costume dramas every winter, starting Jan. 13 . Updated packaging material, including commentary by a yet-to-be announced host, will wrap around the weekly dramas.
- Masterpiece Mysteries bows next summer, absorbing the role of the late Mystery!
- Masterpiece Contemporary, every fall, will be stocked with original fare such as The Last Enemy, a thriller about surveillance technology and terrorism that stars Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, slated for fall 2008, according to Rebecca Eaton, e.p.
The new schedule will help manage viewers’ expectations of the types of drama they’ll find on PBS on a given Sunday night, depending on the season.
In addition to the dramatizations of Austen’s novels, the PBS package includes a biopic based on the author’s own love life, Miss Austen Regrets, scheduled to air Feb. 3.
New adaptations of four novels in the Austen package will have their U.S. debuts, and two are acquisitions that have had U.S. runs on A&E. Pride and Prejudice is a 1995 co-production of the BBC and A&E, with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. A 1997 dramatization of Emma, also an A&E title that aired on Britain’s commercial ITV network, completes the package.
Firth’s amped-up sex appeal in Pride and Prejudice, as adapted by British screenwriter and frequent Masterpiece Theatre contributor Andrew Davies, marked a breakthrough for modern Austen adaptations. Watch for the wet shirt scene, which launched actor Firth’s career as a heartthrob and inspired the plot of Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, with Firth starring in its 2001 film version.
Davies also scripted Emma and two of the new adaptations — Northanger Abbey, a brisk, 90-minute drama that playfully evokes the heroine’s fascination with gothic fiction, and Sense and Sensibility, a two-part BBC series that dramatizes story elements overlooked in the 1995 feature film directed by Ang Lee.
In May, Davies entertained PBS Showcase attendees with colorful remarks about off-screen romances and problem shoots. Davies “was just charming and fantastic,” Eaton said. “We’re bringing him over again and taking him on a victory lap.” The screenwriter will return to the States to promote the series debut and will speak at donor events for stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston, she said.
Masterpiece Theatre will also preview the Austen package with a fundraising special for December pledge, complete with DVD premiums and video clips featuring Davies.
Other adaptations have transposed Austen’s plots to contemporary settings, but all six in PBS’s Complete Jane Austen package are set during England’s Regency period, when Austen wrote the novels. Although these dramas are stylistically different, they share the costumes, stately manors and romantic intrigues that have fascinated Masterpiece Theatre audiences for decades.
When Eaton began buying the Austen dramas, she wasn’t aiming for the complete set. Producers for the BBC first approached her about co-producing their new Sense and Sensibility.
“We said, ‘Yes, please,’” Eaton recalled. Soon after, execs of Britain’s competing ITV network offered new versions of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and MansfieldPark.
Eaton said “yes” again.
“There was a bit of competitive programming going on between the BBC and ITV, and we took advantage of that,” she said. Later, the BBC proposed Miss Austen Regrets. But the idea of airing adaptations of all six novels was “completely homegrown,” originating with Masterpiece Theatre post-production director Erin Delaney, “a Jane Austen freak,” Eaton said. This will be the first time all six have been presented on U.S. television.
Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee