“Is that agreeable?
‘Oh yes, ooh yes’”
To the few regular readers of this blog, it will be no surprise that I am missing Elliot Cowan’s presence on the stage. He’s currently filming a TV series of Sinbad and so in order to get my fix (plus while away a train journey or two), I decided to revisit the TV show in which he made his first major impact on me, Lost in Austen. Man-crush aside, this show also fed my girl-crush on Jemima Rooper – someone I’ve liked for ages – and started a new girl-crush on Gemma Arterton – I’m pretty sure this was the first time I saw her in anything and so has to rank as one of my favourite pieces of TV entertainment in recent years. It was a four-part drama on ITV in 2008 written by Guy Andrew and is basically a fantasy version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Amanda Price – Rooper – is a modern-day city girl who is obsessed with the book and through a portal that mysteriously appears in her bathroom, finds herself swapping places with Elizabeth Bennett and living the story that she knows far too well. But as any Doctor Who fan will tell you, you can’t go round meddling in alternative timestreams and though the set-up is entirely familiar to Amanda, the very fact of her presence in Lizzie’s stead kicks off a chain of events that knocks all the dominoes off-kilter, her manipulations never quite going right with nothing playing out like she thought it would: not least with her own tumbling head-over-heels for this version of Mr Darcy, which considering it is Elliot Cowan, that is no surprise at all.
It is silly, it is frothy, but by God it is huge amounts of entertaining fun, made for nights snuggled into a blanket with a hot chocolate. Rooper is excellent as the out-of-time Amanda, causing havoc with her fag-smoking, lippy-brandishing Petula Clarke-singing anachronistic presence who can’t help but let slip how things ‘ought’ to be happening and Cowan is just marvellous, a magnificently brooding presence who gets his own, eye-popping wet-shirt sequence (thank you lord). Guy Andrews’ writing never takes itself too seriously so there’s lots of Austenesque lines delivered at high speed by all and sundry and the whole piece of the show is of generous affectionate parody.
I particularly like the way in which Lost in Austen plays with our preconceptions about some of these familiar characters, giving them an alternative extra life. Tom Mison’s Bingley emerges as much less of a catch, Christina Cole’s manipulative Caroline has a surprising secret, but Tom Riley’s raffish Wickham is the greatest beneficiary here – an absolute vision in his red uniform and as it turns out, rather misunderstood and a dab hand at the etiquette of using a fan, one of the best scenes of the series. Alex Kingston feels a little miscast as the bustling Mrs Bennett, too good an actress to play the bawdy broad strokes of this caricature and I wasn’t much keen on Morven Christie’s Jane, too much of a wet blanket. But elsewhere, there’s fun work by Lindsay Duncan as a cool Lady Catherine, Ruby Bentall’s bookish Mary and Guy Henry’s hilariously predatory finger-sniffing Mr Collins.
All things must come to an end though and this is where the show falls down a little bit for me. There’s only so much that can be achieved in 3 hours of television and there’s just so much material here that some strands are left frustratingly unresolved. And the shift back to modern day in the final episode is less successful in its reversal of the fish-out-of-water scenario, the shoe-horning in of some Colin Firth-googling particularly a touch too far, as the writer careers his way past improbable explanations in search of tidy resolution. Fortunately, that doesn’t last too long and with the return of Gemma Arterton’s Lizzie who adapted to modern-day life a touch too easily perhaps with very little time devoted to how she has fared, the scene is set for a neat conclusion which is probably all the better for its crowd-pleasing desire.
I haven’t quite got round to watching Downton Abbey and to be honest, I’m not sure how much I want to given the mania that has surrounded it. But Lost in Austen offers a reminder that ITV have been able to make excellent drama before and this gets a hearty recommendation from me: put it on your Christmas list and then stick it on on the kind of day when bad weather will make leaving the house a complete trial, absolute bliss.
And here’s a treat for you all: