December 7, 2023

Christmas TV review: Death comes to Pemberley

Is Elizabeth Darcy née Bennet the new Hercule Poirot?

Have you ever read Pride and Prejudice and thought ‘It was OK, but what it really needed was a good murder investigation‘? Neither have I. Maybe the idea flits across a reader’s mind whilst reading Mansfield Park but I don’t think it’s over-generalising to say most people regard Jane Austen’s books as pretty much alright as they are. Do we want to see her characters doing anything but attending balls, falling in love and planning marriages?

Baroness James of Holland Park thinks so. In 2011 she wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that well, let’s just say it’s called Death comes to Pemberley. Of course PD James has form – her Adam Dalgliesh novels would all be much shorter if there were no murders in them.

On Boxing Day the BBC showed the first of a three part adaptation of this costume-drama/murder-mystery sequel. Set six years after the end of the original book. Elizabeth and Darcy are played by Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin – who has BBC costume drama experience as Esther Summerson in 2005’s Bleak House. Married with a young son Elizabeth is running her husband’s large house, and as the story begins she is checking the food and ordering the final touches for a ball. A ball to which her younger sister Lydia and her cad of a husband Wickham have not been invited.

So far, so Jane Austen. The bright green colours of the Pemberley countryside give the impression it has always just been raining, the under-stairs staff run around polishing cutlery and the men have sideburns and knee-high boots. Chatsworth House stands in for Pemberley, and it is an ideal substitute, allowing many moody architectural vistas shot through the woods. The ladies smile demurely whilst gentlemen enquire as to their availability for marriage. So far, so BBC costume drama.

The atmosphere changes when a coach pulled by frightened horses arrives at high speed. The passengers tell of gun shots en route. A search party is convened and sets off, quickly finding a body and a suspect – who is well-known to the Pemberley household. His character is not held in high esteem and he is soon on a police cart heading to jail, bringing back memories for Darcy of a young boy who was also driven from Pemberley and executed years before.

At 8.14pm last night I thought it best not to fiddle with the classics. Otherwise we’re only a step away from The Great Gatsby: Attack of the Zombies or some other inappropriate mash-up. By 9.20pm I was more forgiving. The plot had delivered a few incongruous scenes, of which the sight of Elizabeth crouching by a fire piecing together fragments of a burned letter was most peculiar. The macabre sub-plots are unpleasant and if there was ever anything like that in the original manuscripts then Jane was lucky her editor removed them. We will see tonight how a murder investigation really affects Austen’s world. It could get ridiculous, but first impressions were encouraging.

The second and third episodes are being shown tonight and tomorrow (27th and 28th December) on BBC1.

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