Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Northanger Abbey (1987)


This critically and commercially lambasted adaptation of Jane Austen's novel was broadcast in the Screen Two strand in 1987. Having read some truly scathing reviews - there's in excess of twenty single star ratings for it on Amazon alone, with several of them unfairly and incorrectly casting catty aspersions on the attractive qualities of the two leads; Peter Firth and Katharine Schlesinger -I decided I needed to check this out for myself.

Northanger Abbey and I have history. I consider myself an admirer of Austen yet I cannot claim to enjoy this particular story which centres around the naïve and wildly imaginative teenager Cathy Morland who, having read one too many Gothic bodice-ripping novels, misinterprets the behaviour and manner of the paternal head of the Tilney family, whom she is staying with at the titular Abbey, for sinister and macabre intentions. I didn't even enjoy the most recent adaptation from 2007, and that starred a crush of mine Felicity Jones! So what hope does this film actually have?

Well, having seen it now I believe it is fair to say the BBC were trying something a little different here. For a start there's some indication to this bold desire in the fact that it was adapted for Screen Two in the first place, rather than serialised as the BBC traditionally afforded Austen adaptations. Given the context of the time, the mid 1980s, when period drama had become fashionable once more and Merchant Ivory were riding high (with backing from Screen Two rival Film 4) it seems understandable that the BBC would want to emulate some of that success with a 90 minute feature rather than say a six part adaptation shown weekly. Screen Two always had an eye on a potential lucrative cinematic release, as witnessed with Truly Madly Deeply just a few years later.

It's shot entirely on location by director Giles Foster which, along with the crisp efforts of cinematographer Nat Crosby, gives the whole production a very light and airy, spacious feel that is quite sumptuous to behold. There's a scene featuring the protagonists 'taking the waters' in Bath that is especially striking, recalling period paintings in an almost Greenaway-esque manner. 

The score by Ilona Sekacz is often singled out for particular criticism. Even today, attempting a contemporary, modern day score for a period film is a daring move so by mid '80s standards this may well have been a step too far. Granted at times the music, with its electronic guitars and wistful sax, does feel like its made its way there from that week's episode of Bergerac (that the Jersey based cop drama, not Cyrano de...I hasten to add) but when it neglects these instruments to focus primarily on wordless harmonies and some subtle synth I didn't find it at all distracting, and it works perfectly for the lurid fantasy scenes.

Ah yes, the fantasies. I sometimes wonder if the people who gave this the thumbs down have actually read Northanger Abbey - is it this adaptation they dislike or is it the story itself? You see, it focuses on the silliness of Cathy, a wide eyed innocent teenage girl, and I do sometimes wonder if her inherent silliness ultimately scuppers the story itself. I say this, because I sometimes feels that it does for me personally, even though I can claim to share with Cathy her ability to feel awkward, embarrassed and uncomfortable as a house guest when I've stayed with friends myself. Granted, Maggie Wadey's script enhances these fantasy sequences (and sometimes at the cost of other more humdrum, normal sequences from the novel) but I think this is in fact a wise move, one that is in keeping with Austen's original intention to satirise the tawdry books Cathy finds such delight in reading and also one that hints that the lusty dreams that springs from such literature were perhaps an all too natural outlet for young women in such repressed, starchy and formal society. Andrew Davies would later deliver similar fantasy scenes in his 2007 adaptation with some gusto, but less atmosphere, and therefore ultimately not to the same levels of success that this adaptation has.

One of the most prominent complaints levelled at this production is the acting. I'm not sure if a lot of the reviewers on Amazon are perhaps possibly just insensitive or ignorant to the change in acting styles in the past nigh on 30 years, specifically TV acting. Back in the 1980s there was still a tendency to perform in a rather theatrical manner - especially in studio productions where actors performed to the banks of cameras before them as they would to an audience on the stage - which television didn't really shake off until the mid 90s when more location shooting and hand held cameras became the norm. I see no issue here with Katharine Schlesinger as our heroine Cathy Morland. She convinces totally as the impressionable innocent abroad both in Bath and at the Abbey, more so in fact than Felicity Jones would do twenty years later. Schlesinger is an actress I recall well as the sinister 'That's The Way To The Zoo' singing daughter in spooky 1989 Doctor Who story Ghostlight and as Kathy Staff's goth grandaughter in inoffensive 1988 sitcom No Frills and she possesses the right kind of doe eyed, raven locked beauty required for period drama - especially those with a slightly Gothic hue - so to suggest otherwise and to claim she is not attractive enough is a slur. 

Peter Firth on the other hand....I'm struggling. I admire Firth as an actor, and can equally appreciate his an attractive enough man with his golden curls and cherubic features, but his glib Henry Tilney makes for a strange hero and love interest for Cathy and the chemistry between them suffers as a result. The supporting cast, the likes of Cassie Stuart, Googie Withers, Jonathan Coy and Robert Hardy, are very mannered and loud (though Hardy is essentially just Robert Hardy as he is in any period drama, just in a slightly different wig) so I can understand some may find this distracting and irritating. But again, their performances are pitched in such a way to deliberately contrast the acting of our heroine, played by Schlesinger. They are the vulgar rich snobs and/or greedy social climbers, accustomed to town life, their behaviour has to be remarkably different to the country bred, homely and innocent Cathy.

Ultimately I cannot agree with the levels of hate this adaptation receives. It's by no means a success, and the music and the acting from some quarters dates it as a totally '80s piece of film making, but I still feel that its bold attempt to try something new shouldn't be judged too harshly. It consistently looks lovely and it manages to carry off the message Austen intended - to be careful not to confuse fantasy with reality - rather well and certainly more enjoyably than the 2007 production. It has actually made me see the story a little differently, and that can only be a good thing.

Northanger Abbey has been released a couple of times to DVD and is available to view for free in full on YouTube. See what all the fuss is about for yourself!

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

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