I had abysmally low expectations for last night's ITV premiere of Lost In Austen, a four-part serial from writer Guy Andrews. Lost In Austen offers us a rather far-fetched and decidedly kooky tale - 21st century Austen-obsessive Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), encounters Jane Austen's favourite heroine Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, and then enters the world of Pride & Prejudice via a mysterious portal in her shower.
I was sure that this conceit would collapse under the weight of its own silliness within the first fifteen minutes. More fool me!
Lost In Austen proved to be a delightfully frothy and highly amusing wee jaunt, with some neat acting performances and moments of exquisitely-honed dialogue. Sure, the original concept reads like something from Fan Fiction, and I rather fear for the show's success as a result. After all, there can't be that vast an audience who have as intimate a knowledge of Austen's most beloved novel as this series appears to presume. In truth, though, Lost In Austen is mainly targeting viewers who have eagerly consumed the multiple filmic and TV adaptations of Austen's texts. Indeed, the show almost seems to parody, even subvert these adaptations, often to hilarious effect.
There are numerous echoes of the BBC's hugely successful and iconic 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, which launched Colin Firth's Darcy as a major heart-throb, ranging from similar musical undertones to Amanda Price's quip, on considering her first meeting with Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan), that he he's no Colin Firth, adding that even Colin Firth's no Colin Firth! Our first shot of Cowan's Darcy is surely another visual joke, as he is seen from behind, broodily staring out of a window at Netherfield Hall. Firth's Darcy was often shot in the same manner, signifying his desire to escape from the narrow-minded confines of the polite drawing-room into the sensual wilds of nature beyond the window-frame - clearly more representative of Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who penned the BBC adaptation, than Jane Austen herself.
The 2002 Working Title film, Pride and Prejudice, is also subtly parodied in Lost In Austen. Again, theme music often bears a distinct resemblance to Dario Marianelli's award-winning score which accompanied the film, and there are strong visual reminiscences.
Lost In Austen wallows unashamedly, with glorious gusto, in its status as Austen rip-off hypertext. Clearly influenced in terms of tone and sensibility by earlier adaptations, there is also a joyous, witting irreverence at play, which is carried off with considerable verve and brio by an excellent cast. Hugh Bonneville as a suitably droll Mr 'Claude' Bennet is exceptional, and he nabs the best lines. Alex Kingston plays his shrill wife, with her notoriously nervous temperament. This Mrs Bennet has a tough-as-nails interior, and gives short shrift to Amanda Price's interloping presence. The Bennet girls are nicely cast, especially Mary, who is almost comically plain. The skittish Lydia (Perdita Weekes) actually resembles her mother, which is a neat bit of casting, as, arguably, Lydia and Mrs Bennet are closest in personality. Charlotte Lucas is brilliantly played here as smarmy and sceptical by Michelle Duncan. Meanwhile, Christina Cole takes on the snidey, 'villainess' role of Caroline Bingley, although I wonder if she might have made a better Jane, here played by Morvern Christie.
Elliot Cowan's Darcy is ridiculously smouldering and aristocratic, to almost comic degree, and Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) is charming and sweet with modern good looks. Unsurprisingly, our thoroughly postmodern heroine Amanda attracts Mr Bingley, thus complicating Austen's plot, where Bingley falls for Jane Bennet - and to make matters worse, a tipsy Amanda also snogs Bingley outside the assembly halls! It's all very, very silly, and hugely entertaining to boot. Another laugh-out-loud moment is when Amanda Price, convinced she is stumbled into a reality TV show (and who can blame her in the circumstances!) 'flashes' Lydia, who is more than a little taken aback.
Gemma Arterton, famously known in the media as the next Bond Girl, plays Elizabeth Bennet - so far little more than 'glimpsed' in Amanda Price's Hammersmith bathroom. We can expect much more, presumably, from her character, in later episodes, as we get to see the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet in the modern world.
Jemima Rooper's Amanda Price is fine enough, although for such a strong showing in most other departments (barring occasional jars in the scripting), Rooper is a slightly weak link. She has the unmistakeable looks and bearing of a 21st century girl - her face is wholly modern. But her acting occasionally borders on 'mugging.'
Even so, this is a fun piece of work, and I look forward to Amanda Price's further adventures in Austen-land.