Twenty years of Darcy’s wet shirt

Believe it or not, Pride and Prejudice, the BBC television series that introduced us to the charms of Colin Firth, first hit TV screens 20 years ago.

Cover of The complete novels of Jane AustenOriginally airing in the UK between 24 September – 29 October 1995, it’s difficult to overstate just how phenomenally succesful it was. In just six episodes Pride and Prejudice turned Firth into a heart throb and reignited the public’s interest in both Jane Austen’s novels and their adaptations (films of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma all came out within a year or so). Austen-mania was at its height.

And let’s not forget that without this television series and it’s massive popularity we would have no Bridget Jones books and movies.

Why was it so ridiculously popular? Much credit must go to the casting. While Firth is considered by many as “the perfect Darcy” – so much so he essentially played the role again in the Bridget Jones films – there are several other performances in the series that come together to make it a stand out.

And so, I humbly offer to you the following list.

The 5 best characters in Pride and Prejudice

  • Darcy. Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy fairly glowers up the place for the first few episodes before revealing his “vulnerability” by diving into a lake and emerging in a clingy linen shirt. Pedants everywhere scoffed that this was “not in the book” but they were rather drowned out by the sound of ladies everywhere squealing and fanning themselves.
  • Elizabeth Bennet. The perfect foil to Darcy’s dark looks and mono-syllables, Jennifer Ehle is all winsome grins, intelligence behind the eyes, and wry amusement while also pulling off the scenes where haughtiness is required with equal skill. Lizzie is a sympathetic character even as you’re desperate to grab her by the shoulders and yell at her to be a bit less stroppy with Darcy. He’s just misunderstood, okay?
  • Mrs Bennet. Alison Steadman’s performance as the mother of the five Bennet sisters is perhaps not a pleasant one but it’s masterful all the same. With a voice that could strip paint from a Regency chaise her plaintive cries of “Mr Bennet!” whenever perceived disaster struck are on a par with Bianca’s screams of “RICKY!” on Eastenders, or that noise that polystyrene makes when you rub it together.
  • Mr Bennet. Dimpled and jocular but mostly in his study reading. When Mr Bennet rolls his eyes, usually after Mrs Bennet has said something ludicrous, you know he really means it. If his wit were any drier it would be a fire risk.
  • Mr Collins. Played by David Bamber, Mr Collins is probably the most pompous, creepy, boorish clergyman in literature. If you don’t feel icky after every scene he’s in you must be made of sterner stuff than I.
  • Lydia Bennet. She’s irritating in that way that teenage girls specialise in. Flirty, flighty and self-obsessed, Lydia is the polar opposite of the other role that Julia Sawalha is famous for, that of bookish, put-upon Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. With all her declarations of “Oh LORD” and begging to be allowed to go to dances, Lydia is basically the worst. But the best worst.

If all this talk of Pride and Prejudice has got you itching to revisit “Austen-mania” you can rewatch the original or you try one of the many versions, unofficial sequels, reimaginings and books based on the novel –

Cover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - An annotated editionCover of Pride, Prejudice and popcornCover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice graphic novelCover of Flirting With Pride & Prejudice Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-lit Masterpiece

What are your Pride and Prejudice memories? Are you similarly shocked that 20 years has passed since it came out?