Sense & Sensibility: 1971 BBC Version

I am actually excited about reviewing these adaptations because Sense & Sensibility was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read at the age of twelve, brought to my good attention by my local librarian (who is still at the same library coincidentally over 20 years later). It was published in 1811 anonymously, but was written sometime during the 1790s. Elinor in the novel starts out to be 19, Marianne is 15 (some places say 16), and Margaret is 13. The novel takes course over a period of two years, which no one ever seems to recall, so most action is speed up. The adaptation was done by Denis Constandorus (who did another Austen adaptation) and directed by David Giles (who, again, did another Austen adaptation). This early version is unique in that it’s not included in the Jane Austen Classic Collection (the 1980 version supplants it) and it was never made available here in the US until recently. I had the hardest time tracking a copy down (it had a long wait time on Netflix), so I did the only logical solution available to me-I watched each 45 minute episode on YouTube.

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Elinor Dashwood (Joanna David) and Marianne Dashwood (Ciaran Madden)

Many people have long espoused this first version to be well worth viewing because it is charming and accurate to the novel. While it does have it’s charm, it’s not entirely accurate to the novel. Joanna David is perfectly cast as Elinor, cool, collected, sensible, but does have emotions when pressed (Joanna David portrayed Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice adaptation). Richard Owens makes a fairly decent Colonel Brandon; he’s handsome, a little morose at times, but attractive in his own way. Patricia Routeledge sparkles as Mrs. Jennings (she’s better known as Hyacinth Bucket) with her over the top performance which works because it’s done so well. Most of the others are decent in the roles, but not as memorable. Overall, the ensemble works and it’s enjoyable. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any issues.

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Mrs. Dashwood (Isabel Dean) with Mrs. Jennings

Right from the start, Marianne is over the top dramatic and not in a way that is enjoyable. While I love and appreciate Mrs. Jennings being over the top and exuberant in her movements, Marianne comes across as selfish, cruel, and does things to an unhealthy excess. While this works in the novel (recall Marianne is 15-16 years of age), they portray her being 17 in all adaptations (because a 35 yr old man lusting after a 15 yr old is creepy), it’s just too much. It makes her seem childish and wholly unattractive. There is nothing about how she is portrayed that makes it at all probable for Brandon to want to be with her. The way Marianne acts should be a reasonable turn off for Willoughby as well (and I don’t blame him if that’s how she acts).

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Elinor trying to control Marianne as the latter is actually throwing a fit over Willoughby’s rejection at the ball. It was a scene of hysterics worthy of Ophelia. Marianne’s dress is from 1818.

Dress and shawl, 1818. By the beginning of the 1820s, the waistline had started to move down. New historical influences are visible in dress styles. This particular example has a gathered collar in imitation of the ruffs of 16th century dress. The sleeve with a series of puffs down the arm was known as a ‘Marie’ sleeve, after a similar style worn by Marie de Médicis, Queen of France at the beginning of the 17th century.

Embroidered Muslin Dress 1818, Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Another issue is Edward seems to have a stutter. Now, some people don’t like it but actually I don’t mind. I myself have had issues with pronouncing certain words and cannot to this day say “anemone”  without screwing it up by adding extra syllables. And I’ve taken so many acting classes as a Theatre major and have sung as part of a College choir that it shouldn’t be an issue (but it is). So, for me, it doesn’t bother me. The stutter isn’t done all the time, just in times of stress or when he’s uncomfortable and put in the spotlight, which does seem to suit his character. Edward Ferrars, after all, is being pushed by his mother to enter into a profession such as Parliament or the Law, which would require him to be really good at public speaking. In the novel, as well as every adaptation I’ve seen, he is very reluctant to do so. Having an issue with public speaking on a grand scale would be a reason why Edward would prefer the Church (smaller and more intimate arena for speaking). [FYI, for a good article on what it’s like to have a stutter, I highly recommend this article by friend and fellow author Ewan Morrison:]

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Edward Ferrars (Robin Ellis); I appreciate he’s given period correct glasses, but very large mutton chops and puffy hair.

Like 1971’s Persuasion, we’ve got an interesting selection of puffy hair for the men, with HUGE mutton chops, and puffy hair (with curls) for the ladies. I suspect most of the hair for the ladies is some of their own with wig pieces added, but it’s very 1960’s bouffant-esque. I do applaud the effort though, even though it’s wrong. The hair in this adaptation is at least slightly better than Persuasion, but only slight. The men have more lift, but they do have some curls and layers too. Mutton chops did exist, just not Victorian style ones. We must keep in mind that this was the beginning of trying to do research and designers did not have access to all the information we have available today.

Boris Golytsin, 1791

1791 Miniature Portrait of Boris Golystin [Public Domain]; most men in this adaptations seem to have hair more along the lines of this man, which wouldn’t be so bad if the novel was being set in the 1790s. Though the adaptation seems to be set closer to 1810).

Rubens Peale 1807 by Rembrandt Peale [Public Domain Image]

1807 Rubens Peale; I chose this because it resembles Robin Ellis as Edward Ferras with the spectacles, it shows the close cropped curly hair and yes, he has mutton chops, but notice how delicate it is (there are images of bigger ones too, but I like this image).

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Marianne with Colonel Brandon; notice the massive mutton chops. Massive. Though he’s got a nice M notch collar.

Besides the hair, which we must make allowances for because it’s a product of the times, we should then discuss the costumes as well. Like 1971’s Persuasion, the dresses were probably made from polyester blends and you can see some were made fr0m prints that were more late 1960s than late Georgian. The silhouette tells me they were going for a 1808-1810 era, but Mrs. Dashwood was dressed in a style a bit more consistent with the 1790s to possibly the 1800s. Then again, Marianne has fashions dating from after 1815. It’s hard to tell at times because some of the costumes were most likely pulled from storage and altered, which makes it difficult to assess from what period it was originally meant to look like. And that’s OK. While I tend to be harsher on period films starting around 1980, I make allowances for period pieces done prior to the 1980s simply because the information wasn’t as available. I know because I’ve looked into it. Most costume history books before 1980 are full of misinformation and generalities that we now know are just wrong. Extant clothing in museums wasn’t always made available to designers like they are now, and photographs of them weren’t of the best quality when they were available. Technology has really made it possible to have better quality period clothing for stage and screen than previously.

Taffeta “Round Gown”, About 1795-1800  The round gown” style is updated further with a raised waist and gathered bodice which ties at center front. Vestiges of an older style of fitted bodice are visible on the inside. Internal stitching reveals the waistline was raised about three inches. A stiff taffeta material like this still suits the dress, but lighter, softer fabrics will be needed for the slim, clinging styles on the horizon.

1795-1800 Silk Taffeta Round Gown; this gown was adapted from an earlier gown (which is what us costume historians love to see) because the waistline was raised 3 inches up from where it was previously. I think this is what Mrs. Dashwood is wearing. Courtesy of

Coat Date: 1787 - 1792

1785-1792 Coat (and ensemble pieces) courtesy of the Met; chosen to show the elaborate neck frills as this was shown quite a lot in this adaptation, which again would be fine if it was set in the 1790s.

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Robert Ferrars (David Belcher), Lady Middleton (Shelia Ballantine), and Sir John Middleton (Michael Aldridge); yes both men are wearing the frilly neck pieces as shown previously.

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Elinor in a very 1960s Print gown; the garden is lovely though

An interesting decision made in this adaptation was to include Lady Middleton and the mentioning of one child (William), but none of the others. They cut Margaret (she doesn’t exist), replaced the servant Sarah with an elderly one named Mary (of which I am unsure as to why), and showed both of the Miss Steeles (Nancy and Lucy). It was also fascinating to hear that Brandon’s ward was made to be older at age 18 and had become his niece and not the natural daughter of his first love. They also have Eliza attempting to commit suicide while pregnant, which is not in the novel at all. We also meet Mrs. Ferrars, Elinor is shown drawing, and John Dashwood has no son. So many changes made to fit the novel into four 45 minute episodes, but also some weird choices as well. While I do not mind keeping both of the Miss Steeles, I don’t understand why remove Margaret? She’s a sweet, fun little character who’s barely in it (but in it more than Nancy Steele). They also made the decision to show Charlotte Palmer pregnant and then later on sow her with the child after it’s born (and very slim afterwards too). I think it was wise to show Charlotte pregnant because she is so in the novel, but to then show her being extremely thin afterwards is a bit of a lie (she had no bust, which any woman can tell you is just wrong).

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The Miss Dashwoods meeting a pregnant Charlotte Palmer (Jo Kendall) with Mr. Palmer (David Strong) right where her hand is.

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The Miss Dashwoods in very matchy-matchy traveling outfits with Lady Middleton

Not everything about this adaptation is all bad. The inside shots are done very well and while some of them (if not all of them) are done on sets, they seem to have been done well enough to resemble actual rooms proportion wise and are not so vast and empty as 1971’s Persuasion. While some spaces still seem a trifle large, tis was most likely done in order to maneuver lighting equipment and the cameras, so I am not bothered by it. The outside scenes are noticeably different in terms of filming (which cannot be helped due to technology at the time) but are very lovely and I enjoy the scenery. It’s quite nice to see the views of the countryside. Though I did giggle a bit during the scene where Marianne injures herself while Elinor complains that it’s raining while the scene is perfectly clear with no visible rain drops are seen.  Granted, a fine misting rain would not be visible but it was sunny and dramatically raining in mere seconds.

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Elinor swears it’s raining mere moments before Marianne trips and injures her ankle on this hill. Yes, they called it a hill.

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The dashing Willoughby (Clive Francis) after carrying Marianne in the rain with nary a drop on him.

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The garden outside of Barton Cottage was lovely though.

So, what do I think? I don’t regret watching this adaptation and I think that it’s a product of it’s time. But I also appreciate that some thought went into the script to try and adapt this novel for television. This isn’t an easy novel to adapt because it spans two years in the life of the two elder sisters. Decision were made to cut Margaret out as well as the other young children. But characters that are kind of useless, like Nancy Steele and Lady Middleton, are kept. Mrs. Ferrars is seen and while I don’t mind it, I can easily do with her being mentioned since she really adds nothing to the story other than being a cruel lady who always wishes to get he own way while disregarding the happiness of her children (the opposite of Mrs. Dashwood who puts the happiness of her children first, so it’s a pity these two mothers never meet in the novel). I can also see why people who’ve watched it today don’t like it because they are used to better scripts and costumes, but also why people who first watched it years ago are adamant pothers are missing out. There are some fie performances in this version and while I don’t like some of the performances on their own, when it comes together as an ensemble piece, it’s quite satisfying as a whole. So, if you can find a copy, watch it. If you can’t, then YouTube is the way to go (though do find the ones that play an entire episode and not sections of it). While this is not my favorite interpretation of Sense & Sensibility, I wouldn’t mind purchasing a copy of it for my own enjoyment.

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Marianne, Willoughby, Edward, and Elinor.

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Brandon in a very Fall/Halloween coat