Pride and Prejudice first ever tv adaptation

Referred to as “little known” in a BBC 2004 news piece entitled “Jane Austen’s enduring appeal” (Caroline Westbrook), and the frustration of P&P fans worldwide, is the 1938 version of Pride and Prejudice that many have speculated has fallen off of the planet. Solely a “tv” adaptation, it is the first Jane Austen adaptation to ever hit the tv screens, and did so in the UK twice in May 1938. But information about the piece is limited, however a bit of hunting has revealed some interesting tidbits that I am hoping may lead to a video copy of the almost hour long production.

Featuring Curigwen Lewis as Elizabeth Bennet, who also played Desdemona and Jane Eyre around the same time, and Andrew Osborn (who would eventually become a BBC Television Executive Producer) as Mr. Darcy, it’s hard to seek out details as both of the actors have been dead for some time. IMDb credits Michael Barry with screenplay and production of the piece, and lists the cast:

Allan Jeayes as Mr. Bennet
Antoinette Cellier as Jane Bennet
Dorothy Green as Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Mervyn Johns as Sir William Lucas
André Morell as Mr. Wickham
John Whiting Servant as Organ Grinder, Apothecary (Yes, organ grinder has me pretty curious too)
Richard Gilbert as Mr. Denny
Bettina Stern as Servant

Below is an image of Lewis as Jane Eyre. Has anyone seen images of her in Pride and Prejudice?

Apparently, a review in The Times (30 May 1938) labelled it as ‘charming’. I’m currently in the process of digging out this review as the archives I have access to only go back as far as 1985 (or historically from 18th century ish) however I have put a few friends on the case who have access to other university libraries, so fingers crossed I will be able to detail, in full, the review to you all soon.

Interestingly, it was produced, and the screenplay written, by Michael Barry who was a producer with the BBC and then the first Head of Television Drama. He also produced Orwell’s 1984 in the 1950s for about three and a half thousand pounds. He was influential in shaping the direction of BBC period drama (and drama in general) in the early years, and his creation of Pride and Prejudice was said to be ‘charming’ in a Times review in the era. At 55 minutes long, it makes sense that it is said to be a ‘reduced’ adaptation. What is interesting, is that as pre-recording was not yet en vogue (or even developed I believe) the productions were generally live to air and repeating them involved actually re-performing the pieces. This may explain why it has been so hard to get a hold of, and even to find general information about.

There is a small reference to the adaptation in “Women writers dramatized: a calendar of performances from narrative works published in English to 1900″ by H Philip Bolton which lists different adaptations of women novelists. Bolton backs up this idea that it was a play-to-air that was probably live, as it is noted as: “100. TELEPLAY: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. BLACK-AND-WHITE. 55 MIN SCREENWRITER: MICHAEL BARRY BBC TV, 22 & 27 MAY 1938 CHADWYCK-HEALEY CATALOGUE Seven men and seven women.” For the interested, I believe that Chadwyck-Healey refers to a big listing of performances. That it was perhaps performed twice is also interesting, and as the 1984 production was also a live teleplay (and far more easy to find info about) I think it would have cost around the same amount to create. The term teleplay emerged in the 50s, so I think we can expect that any recording of P&P around would not be labelled as such.

Information from Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice: the relationship between text and film by Deborah Cartmell explains that “Unfortunately, typical of this vintage of broadcast, there appear to be no surviving recordings of this production. Archiving broadcasts is a relatively recent enterprise, the storage of kinescope and video recordings was implemented in hindsight in the 1970s but tended to be selective and hit and miss. Given that the 1938 Pride and Prejudice was transmitted from the eastern part of Alexandra Palace with a guaranteed range of a mere 25 miles, it’s not surprising that it didn’t make a long-lasting impact.” According to historical references, it looks as though only a few hundred viewers would have been able to see the first broadcasts from North London’s Alexandra Palace (leased to the BBC by the trustees for production and transmission) in 1936 but up to 25-40 thousand homes may have been reached by September 1939 (where broadcasts were suspended due to the war). More conservative estimates place viewers at 12-15 thousand maximum, but admit it was more likely that only a few hundred viewers tuned in to some showings. These London broadcasts were the first high-definition transmissions and were screened four hours each day between ’36 to ’39. These were experimental services (and for the interested, Greer Garson from the 1940s Pride and Prejudice was in the first Shakespeare play performed on TV, also broadcast from Alexandra Palace, a 30 minute production of Twelfth Night). Fittingly, Alexandra Palace is known as the “birthplace of television”.

More information hopefully to come. If you know anything about it, feel free to send me a message or to comment below.

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4 Comments

Filed under A good find, Discussion, Movie Review, Other Review

4 responses to “Pride and Prejudice first ever tv adaptation

  1. oxytachus

    This wouldn’t immediately change after the war. In 1952, the BBC made another version, and that too was done live, and not recorded. If you look closely at TV shows from that time that DO survive, you can see that they’re done live, all in one take. Later, it was thought that no-one would ever watch b/w TV shows again, and the 1958 BBC series that was recorded was thrown away. The oldest BBC series that was recorded AND still exists today is from 1967 but I’ve only been able to find episode 5. If anyone knows more about where to find it…?

    • Patrick Bliss

      Episode 5 is on youtube but the qualitie is awful. Its probably the same episode that is available on the BFI’s screenonline, but you can only register from a school or library ISP:
      http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1012588/index.html

      I’m putting together a bicentinary event looking at the different screen adaptations through the years and am very interested to see any material (stills but especially even a fragment of a clip) from the earlier TV adaptations.

      • Elizabeth Osborn-Greatrex

        Hi to whoever wrote this piece about the 1938 tv adaption of Pride and Prejudice, I would just like to say that the actor who played Mr Darcy, Andrew Osborn, was a wonderful actor, director, producer and a much loved father and of course my grandfather – he is an inspiration even though we never met and i can not find any version of this adaption online?! please help.

      • Spiny Norman

        Elizabeth – and ‘Bennet Sisters’ – there was no video tape in 1938 and the program was done live. It was done twice but there were only experimental ways of recording TV at the time.
        In fact you have a better chance asking if no-one in the family took pictures or recorded the audio or pointed a film camera at the television. Now that would be totally brilliant, but the chances of something like that turnining up are very small. See also this article: http://prideandprejudice200years.blogspot.nl/2013/01/pride-prejudice-in-black-white-first.html

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