Two decades after the famous 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth, British Heritage Travel caught up with Direct Simon Langton to get the inside scoop.
Though Jane Austen’s best-loved work is endlessly being adapted for screens both big and small—in the present day, as a Bollywood musical and even with zombies—nothing’s ever quite captured the magic of the BBC miniseries. Lavish and faithful to the text, it was blessed with an intelligent, smiling Lizzie (Jennifer Ehle) and a brooding Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth—still the Regency era’s wet shirt contest champ). “Casting is perhaps the most important element, apart from the script itself, which was so beautifully written by Andrew Davies,” says director Simon Langton.
Read more: Touring the peaks in the footsteps of Jane Austen's Lizzie Bennet
“It was a marvelous script; there was nothing in it that went wrong. That transmits itself to everybody else: the cast, the technical people, the cameramen, the designers—everybody is on the same track.”
Though it originally aired in 1995 in the UK, the seminal six-part miniseries wasn’t shown in the US until 1996—making this our 20th anniversary. “Well, the more the better as far as I’m concerned!” says Langton. To mark the occasion, we asked him to share some of his memories and challenges from the set, such as filming a riding scene with a pregnant actress and how he handled his two romantic leads starting a real-life romance.
British Heritage Magazine: Did you ever suspect at the time the mini-series would turn into such a phenomenon?
Simon Langton: No, not to that extent. Historically costume dramas have always been popular, and Pride and Prejudice is obviously a favorite; part of the risk of doing something so well-beloved is that you have to live up to people's heightened expectations, which is not always achievable.
I think what made the difference on this one, apart from that collective thing that you can't anticipate, is that it was the first time it had ever been made entirely on film, as far as the BBC is concerned. Before not so very long ago, virtually all productions were made in the studio—interior scenes were shot in a studio on a multi-camera set up and the few exterior scenes were shot on 35 mill cameras providing major contrasts to the visual aspect of the picture. People were used to that, but there was an element of artificiality. If you had a scene inside and somebody walked through a door and they suddenly come out into the exterior…and there were very few shots you were allowed to shoot on film. It’s an entirely different experience.
There, of course, were all sorts of other elements that you cannot anticipate. I mean, casting is perhaps the most important one, apart from the script itself, which was beautifully written by Andrew Davies, who I had worked with before on Mother Love. A brilliant writer who never turned up a chance to inject humor into it. The beauty of having a brilliant script is that everybody reads it and they feel that sense of extra confidence from the very start.
If there's something wrong with the script, the director isn't the only person to know. Other people see it and then know that there will be problems. In this case that didn’t happen, and then there were certain surprises which we hadn't anticipated. I'm sure you'll know what I mean about the wet shirt scene—things like that—which wasn't actually scripted. That was a fluke.
BHT: He was supposed to be shirtless, right? But the BBC wouldn't allow it?
SL: Well, no, at one stage I think Andrew Davies wanted him to be completely naked! The BBC vetoed that, of course. If you remember, Darcy comes galloping up, all sort of hot and bothered at having lost the love of his life forever, and he's expecting people to come the next day. When he gets to a lake, he decides to have a swim.
Now, this isn't in the original book, as you know, and he sort of partly took clothes off. He just had this billowing shirt. Velour, whatever you call it. You see him swimming underwater and you know, almost in a sort of Wagnerian way, that he and Lizzie are coming closer, closer together.
We'd finished the part where he'd dived in. He was all wet and everything and I suddenly remembered that he’d tethered his horse by the side of the lake. In the script, he picks up his saddle and walks back to Pemberley leaving the horse tethered in the middle of the grounds. I thought This would spoil the rhythm of the entire moment because people would be thinking about him leaving that horse behind by the lake. I said, Well, we better pour some water all over him. We summoned, I think, one of the stunt riders, to come and act as somebody who works on the estate to walk the horse, and then he would go on his journey back to Pemberley and meet Lizzy.
That was just put in at the very last second. We upset makeup and costume because we had to pour water all over him and they weren't ready for it, you know. It became an iconic moment, entirely unexpected. But if anybody asked me, I'd say it was the horse. The horse that gave me the idea. That was one of the few bits which the author, Andrew Davies, hadn't actually put in.
BHT: What was your favorite departure from the novel?
SL: The sexual element, I think, from Andrew. I think he’s famous for that—inserting sexual elements within the scripts to liven them up, I suppose. That's the way his mind works, and it's often extremely successful as long as it's not too explicit or anything like that. The idea, I think there's a scene when Jane is ill. Do you remember?
SL: Jane Bennett took a horse and got soaked. Got a bad chill and had to stay at Netherfield, so Elizabeth had to visit. She walks all the way over to the house, gets covered in mud, and who should she bump into in the grounds when she eventually reaches the house? Darcy. The description in the script, what Andrew had written, is that because she's there all hot and sweaty and sort of muddy, that he immediately becomes very attracted to her—so much so that it gives him a, let’s say, physical reaction.
BHT: Ah! I see!
SL: Andrew said, "I don't imagine you would dwell on that point,” which I certainly did not. But that was the intention: for the actor to feel that this extraordinary woman, who he usually ends up quarreling with, always turns him on in that particular state. After she's gone through rain and mud and sweat, to walk all the way over to the house from her home. That's just a small example. You have scenes of Darcy looking down on outside and seeing Lizzy playing with a great big dog, you know. Things like that. They're not heavy in any sense, but they all add to the mix.
BHT: Yes, you’ve spoken about the invigoration—a liveliness of the text that didn’t exist in other versions: Elizabeth running, girls laughing, music and dancing.
SL: You've put your finger on something which was very important. A lot of people don't realize that, at that time, it was tremendously important that every young man and young lady had to learn dancing. That was the only surefire social way of meeting other people! It was almost essential. I mean, you could imagine if you were a young girl, you go there and you didn't know how to dance, so you just had to stand on the side? Nobody would talk to you, so it was terribly important. Jane Gibson, who has done a lot of choreography, was absolutely brilliant! The dancers and the actors had to learn all these various songs, and some were better than others.
I wouldn't say that dancing was one of Colin's favourite occupations, but nevertheless he overcame any doubts he had about talking and dancing at the same time quite brilliantly—they both did. That was one of the most brilliant scenes and it has been copied ever since. The combination of [composer] Carl Davis's music and the two of them and the timing was in some ways the most intricate and, I thought, the most outstanding part of the entire piece.
BHT: It was passionate and restrained at the same time—almost a representation of the whole series.
SL: Absolutely, yeah.
BHT: Was the series more sympathetic to Darcy than previous versions? Am I imagining that?
SL: Andrew definitely shifted the focus more strongly onto Darcy, even though Elizabeth has the larger part. And Colin was an extraordinary actor to work with. He has this facility to hang on, to not widen the, shall we say the width, if you like, of the performance itself. He actually stays very clearly within guidelines. Sometimes, he surprises you, but there are people who try things as they go along and it's almost though as they're not absolutely sure of the character.
BHT: You've worked on Upstairs Downstairs, The Scarlet Pimpernel—so many costume dramas. What do you think the trick is to a successful period piece?
SL: Not to lose sight of the basic functions of having a good story, whatever happens. If it's set in the 18th, 19th, or 12th century, one must make it intelligible to the audience. Whenever it happens, there's always a story of strife, of romance. Things that are understood, even if they happen to be taking place during a different time.
But in the end, it's the script. That's my way of thinking. Apart from one subjective point of view, that certain scripts will be appreciated more than others. Part of the problem is there are very few very good scripts. [Pride and Prejudice] was a marvelous script, there was nothing in it that went wrong. That transmits itself to everybody else, not just the cast but the technical people: the cameramen, the designers, everybody is on the same track. It's so difficult to get that.
BHT: Have you enjoyed any other adaptations, like the Bollywood version or Bridget Jones or the one with zombies?
SL: Yes! They're great fun. I didn't enjoy much, the film one. Did you see that? I just wasn't crazy about the casting. The costumes were pretty good and the locations were very good, I thought. Whoever played Darcy was fine, but he was a bit wet. Keira Knightley, she was good, very pretty. It had the advantages of making a feature film with a very large budget. I thought the [Laurence] Olivier version was not good. I read up about it afterward, Olivier was, well, Greer Garson was not at all happy during the making of the film, and he wasn't happy, subsequently, either; it sort of showed. Also, they happened to use costumes that were 30 years later, which made it lose all that charm. Talking about costumes, they gave a sense of freedom. If you imagine how tight the costumes were up to the last part of the 18th century...
BHT: You mean those flowing dresses of the Regency Period?
SL: That's it. That's why Andrew, very cleverly, when you first see Lizzie, she's up on that hill and she looks down and she sees these men galloping about and just generally having a good time. What she does, she hasn't got a horse but she runs all the way down. It's that sense of freedom. The dress she's wearing allows her to do that. A few years earlier, and even more, a few years later, she couldn't have done it. That sort of costume, the only tightness was underneath the bosom. You could run in them. It transmitted itself to women of the time, that there is this liveliness that could be enjoyed rather than be constrained by what you were wearing.
BHT: Any other stories from the set?
SL: Did you know that Susannah Harker, who played Jane Bennet, was pregnant?
BHT: Right! You were afraid of the horse bucking her?
SL: One day we were filming, there was a huge celebratory yelling going on in one of the tents. [Producer] Sue Birtwistle came out of the tent looking absolutely livid. She came over to me and said, "Guess what? Susannah Harker is pregnant." This is about halfway through the story, we still have another three or four months to go. I said, "Well, it doesn't matter. By the time it shows, it still won't show because of one of these dresses. The tied part is just underneath the chest, so it'll be okay." And she said, "No, you don't understand. The last time she was pregnant, she had a miscarriage, so it means that if she has a miscarriage while we're filming, we'll either have to re-shoot the whole thing because she'll have to lay off for a month or two." Do you see what I mean?
We were really worried. I think in the next scene she had to get on the horse side-saddle to visit the hall. Her mother says, "Go off and go see them!” It starts to rain and we had these rain machines everywhere. We were terrified. She wasn't a very skilled rider—and riding side-saddle! We thought the horse will bolt with her and that will be it.
If you look at the scene, it's really funny because there she is, walking across the field on her horse, and just off camera there are three stuntmen on either side of her, waiting for her to fall off and grab the horse just in case. But it was the laziest horse we could possibly get ahold of! It was one of those things that could've stymied the entire film. Of course, she was very happy that she was pregnant and, as it turned out, she didn't miscarriage; she had a lovely boy who is now 20. It all went well, but it could've been a disaster. It could've jeopardized the whole thing. We either would've had to stand down from filming for three months or so, or we would have to re-cast and re-shoot all the stuff that she's already done. We were about halfway through.
BHT: Were you expecting Americans, specifically, to take to the series like they did?
SL: Not to that extent. I know that they do love the costume dramas for obvious reasons, some more than others. I didn't anticipate anything like the reaction that we got, especially in this country. We were doing it as one normally does, so the last one prior to that was 10 years before. It was 10 years before when they had been forced to using the old system of half on electronic cameras and half on proper film. It was well done and interesting, except the whole generation had grown up since then getting used to doing it all on film. It doesn't look as if you're in a studio. A whole generation has grown up getting used to that. If you've done it the old way, I don't think it would've worked, however good the script was.
BHT: I have to ask: How problematic was it for you when your lead actors actually started dating in real life?
SL: It's a double to thing. On one hand, you couldn't ask for anything better—because you get that added thing you couldn't possibly manufacture. The dangerous part and it has happened before, is if the affair, for want of a better word, stops somewhere near the beginning or the middle, it is absolute hell. And I could imagine it would be.
In this particular case, I'm happy to say, it did not. They were an item for many months after that. They went to America and lived together and he actually crashed his car when he was out there. Neither of them were hurt, but they both got—I forget what you call it. When the bags go off and you get burns on your cheeks?
I thought it was rather amusing. I'm not sure, but I don't think Colin is the very best driver in the world, but, anyway, that's what happened. They split up because one got a job in Malaysia and the other got a job in South America exactly at the same time, so they were separated for months on end and I think the whole thing petered out.
But no, I didn't comment on [their romance] at all. When you get a gift like that you don't say anything, you know.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
* Originally published in May 2017.