Before it produced the iconic 1995 version, the BBC produced another miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice in 1980. Watching it now, we can see how dated it is, but it is not without its charms. This review assumes that you know the story and that you have seen the 1995 version.
Written for the screen by the novelist Fay Weldon, this version is relatively faithful to the book although Weldon does move scenes around more than Andrew Davies did fifteen years later. The main difference between the two is the way the characters are portrayed and the way they interact with each other.
Part One sets up the story, taking us from the beginning to Jane’s return from Netherfield. We meet many of the main characters, watch them dance and watch Darcy and Elizabeth begin their own dance around each other. There are long, long scenes, filled with exposition. The pace can be a bit slow and the sisters are so alike that, apart from Jane and Elizabeth, it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Mr. Bennet is the worst version of himself. He is barely civil to his wife and is nearly bullying to his daughters, although he spends more time with the family. Mrs. Bennet is not as silly and over the top as the latter version. It is easier to take her and her concerns seriously; even Elizabeth is kinder to her mother.
Jane is, by far, the loveliest of the five (as she is in the book). She falls for Bingley on sight, which feels out of place, but their dancing at the assembly is very simply and well done. It is easy to understand that these two like each other and why. Mary is very plain and severe, but is treated better by her mother. Kitty and Lydia are, unfortunately, interchangeable. Lydia is much less a flirt than the latter version.
The other characters are similar to what we see later, although Charlotte plays a much larger role here at the beginning than she did later.
I like this version of Elizabeth. She is young and full of spirit, much more likely to laugh at Darcy than to take him too seriously. Darcy is tall and handsome, proud to the point of rudeness, but obviously falling for Elizabeth from the first. There is a great deal of chemistry between the two and I really enjoyed watching their scenes together, especially their interactions at Netherfield. The conversation is teasing and almost flirty, much less serious than later.
Part Two takes us from Mr. Collins first visit through to his engagement to Charlottte. This version of Mr. Collins is less oily, but more stupid. There is a long conversation between Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet in which he gives his reasons for wanting to marry one of the girls. On the surface, they make sense -- he needs to marry and he thinks it only right that one of the girls should stay in their home. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet points him in the wrong direction. He should have looked towards Mary I’ve always thought, as did the producers of this series. She spends a great deal of time mooning after him and singing his praises. Even Mrs. Bennet comes around to this match, but it is too late. Mr. Collins has become engaged to Charlotte.
The scene where Elizabeth meets Wickham and he is snubbed by Darcy is identical to the newer one. Wickham is much less classically handsome; but the scene where he tells Elizabeth about his past relationship with Darcy was better. There is less self-pity and the tone is much more conversational. I prefer it.
As I do the first time that Elizabeth and Darcy dance together. They look at each and touch each other more and are friendlier at the beginning. In fact, Darcy actually smiles at her until she brings up Wickham at which point he walks away from her. Jane and Bingley dance every dance, smiling at each other in an obviously besotted way. It rather negates Darcy’s later assertion that she is not interested.
Mr. Collins’ proposal is no less ridiculous, but Elizabeth is kinder to him. The part I love is that it is Mrs. Bennet’s fault that Mr. Collins leaves the house. Mrs. Bennet refers to her daughter as “foolish and headstrong” which dissuades the man entirely.
Mrs. Gardiner plays a much larger role in this version. At the end of this part, there is a long scene where she and Elizabeth are talking in the garden. Her aunt warns Elizabeth about falling for a man with no money, but in a very kind and sensitive way. It is much clearer here that Elizabeth truly respects her aunt and looks on her as a confident.
Part Three opens with two long conversations between Elizabeth and her parents. Through pure, and I hate to say, boring exposition, we learn all about Jane and her encounters with Miss Bingley in London and the fact that Charlotte is now married.
Eventually, Elizabeth travels to visit the Collins, in this version alone. In fact, this whole section of the story has been truncated from the book and even the later BBC version. Darcy is already at Rosings when Elizabeth arrives for the first time and he is there without Fitzwilliam. Lady Catherine in this version is significantly younger and better looking, but just as overbearing.
The one casting decision that the producers of this version got very wrong is Fitzwilliam. When he finally does turn up, he is too old and too serious. In the book and in the later version, he always comes across as someone Elizabeth might have been interested in if Darcy were not on the scene. It is difficult to imagine her falling for this dour, uninteresting man.
One thing that this version did very well was show us Darcy falling in love with Elizabeth. In the newer version, the jump between the first call and the engagement call is a bit abrupt. Here, there is a montage of Darcy and Elizabeth bumping into each other; Charlotte and her friend discussing what Darcy is up to and the conversation between Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam is more serious. Elizabeth’s anger when Fitzwilliam tells her about Darcy “rescuing Bingley from an imprudent match” is much more in character. Rather than pleading a headache, she stomps off and tells Charlotte all about the meeting.
It is, perhaps, unfair to compare this proposal scene with the later version as it difficult to imagine anyone playing it better than Firth does. Both scenes are taken nearly verbatim from the book, so the dialogue is almost identical which, unfortunately, only emphasizes the weaknesses in this version. Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy appear to have the emotions necessary to really make the scene work.
One of the most memorable montages in the newer version is Darcy writing the letter that explains his point of view. Unfortunately, in this version, Elizabeth sits on a log and we hear Darcy’s voice reading the letter. As if the letter were not enough, we then get a long voiceover in which Elizabeth tells us that the letter has affected her, how and why. These scenes bring this important part of the story to a level of dullness I would not have imagined possible.
Part Four takes us through the aftermath of Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy’s proposal. Better late than never, we see the character flaws that lead Lydia to make the rash decision she makes later as she heads off to Brighton, leaving Kitty in constant tears. There are long conversations between Jane and Elizabeth about both Bingley and Darcy and a wonderful voiceover in which Elizabeth dissects her parents’ marriage and vows that hers will be different.
Although we do not see Darcy is a wet shirt, the meeting between Elizabeth and him at Pemberley is nicely done. In case we have missed it, Elizabeth tells us in a voiceover how much she likes him, so their meeting is tense and awkward. Later, he charms Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, the latter of whom starts to push her niece towards the man. The dinner party is rather blasé, with all the participants sitting around talking about their dislike of mountains.
Jane’s letter with Lydia’s news distresses Elizabeth and she goes running to Pemberley where her aunt and uncle are fishing. Elizabeth is much more upset in this version and Darcy much more removed from her, but the feelings they have for each other are clear. Rather than rushing home, Elizabeth has a long talk with her aunt about how Lydia’s actions will affect Darcy’s feelings towards her.
She finally does return home and there is the usual uncertainty and fear about what has happened to Lydia and what it will all mean to the family. As this is the slowest part of any version of this story, I don’t fault this version for being a bit long.
Part Five takes us through to the end of the story. After the usual to do, Lydia returns home, new husband in tow. There are long scenes at the dinner table and in the parlor in which Lydia prattles on, oblivious to the truth of her circumstances.
After Bingley and Darcy return to Longbourne, there is a dinner party held at the Bennets’ house. Bingley and Jane make eyes at each other and Elizabeth and Darcy stumble through awkward conversations. What is fun to watch is that neither couple can take their eyes off each other and there is a delightful gossip session between the two sisters after dinner. Neither of them has quite given up hope. And, for good reason. Jane is soon engaged to the man she loves.
Hot on the heels of this engagement comes the momentous confrontation between Lady deBourgh and Elizabeth. One of my favorite scenes in all of fiction, this version misses the mark entirely. Neither is angry enough and Elizabeth does not stop smiling which rather negates what should be very strong feelings.
Believe it or not, I prefer this Darcy and Elizabeth proposal scene to the 1995 version. Once they admit they love each other, the conversation they have is friendly and sweet. One can imagine how they will live together moving forward. No final kiss, but all right. We know that they will live happily ever after.
Overall, the 1995 version is the one that I watch when I need a solid dose of Elizabeth and Darcy. This one is a tad talky and stunted, but it is was made over thirty years ago. If you’ve never seen it, go into it with an open mind and give it a chance. I’m sure its charms will work their magic.