The Arts & Entertainment cable channel has delivered some superb British programming in recent years, such as "Cracker," "The House of Eliott" and "A Touch of Frost." But "Pride and Prejudice," the lavish BBC/A&E co-production that starts tomorrow night at 9, sets a new benchmark in style, wit and charm.
The six-hour adaptation of Jane Austen's account of the five Bennett sisters may be the best miniseries of the television year, with an almost mind-boggling amount of talent.
For those who slept through high-school lit class and missed the television adaptation that aired a decade ago on "Masterpiece Theatre," "Pride and Prejudice" is one of the most beloved European novels in literature. Women who can find nothing else in common can almost always recall Austen's opening sentence: "It is a universal truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife."
Think of "Pride and Prejudice" as the 19th-century European version of "Waiting to Exhale," as the five Bennett sisters and their mother despair over making a good marital match -- let alone five of them.
To find an unmarried man of some means, some standing and an ounce of character in the countryside well, the pickings are slim. For Elizabeth Bennett (Jennifer Ehle), the sensible second daughter with a sharp wit who wants two ounces of character in her husband, it looks as if she'll never marry.
At least she'll never marry anyone like the haughty Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth), who has buckets of money but no thought for anyone but himself. Or so she assumes.
That's the broad outline of this adaptation. But this production also has a real feel for the beauty of the English countryside and country houses. In addition to the gala balls and sitting rooms filled with verbal sparring, this "Pride and Prejudice" is a celebration of the outdoors. As it underscores the vitality of its heroine, Elizabeth, it infuses this adaptation with enough color and charm for 10 Martha Stewart specials.
As for the acting, Ehle puts her stamp on the role of Elizabeth as firmly and finely as Joan Hickson has put hers on Miss Marple or, from another field of fire, George C. Scott put his on Patton.
There is as much laughter as wit in Ehle's depiction, as much gaiety as prudence in this young woman of great intelligence and limited means.
Firth ("Circle of Friends") plays the arch Darcy in a manner that gets better and better with each hour. The Andrew Davies screenplay has this Darcy brooding out windows for most of the first two hours. But, my oh my, how doth that Firth boy brood.
Davies' one great liberty with the book is to infuse it with a sense of the outdoors/nature. And nature -- as students of 19th-century European literature know -- usually means sexuality or, at least, sensuality.
Purists will kvetch about how cerebral Austen was and charge that such sensuality is a corruption of the text with attitudes from 1990s culture. Guilty as charged -- to some extent.
But this is, after all, television for a mass audience in the 1990s, and the outdoors are needed visually. Furthermore, an argument can be made that Austen had a tremendous amount of pent-up sensuality, for which Davies is supplying visual imagery. It's a mark of Austen's greatness that, like Shakespeare, generation after generation finds itself using the texts to make sense of its age.
A&E's "Pride and Prejudice" is wonderful television that's not to be missed. Along with the feature films "Sense and Sensibility" and "Clueless," it will only heighten the current fever for Austen.
A preview like this is not the forum to attempt to explain Austen media mania. But I do think one cultural element at play involves the very European-ism of Austen (and, in fact, the booming Merchant-Ivory feature film genre it resembles).
The primary audience for these productions, according to the best demographic information available, is white, college-educated baby boomers. But didn't many members of this group become embarrassed about their European ancestry in college in the 1960s and early 1970s as they studied the history of colonialism? And didn't many of them spend much of the next two decades trying to find meaning in the music, visual arts and writings of non-European-based cultures?
It is a universal truth that as we age, we seek to return from whence we came.
"Pride and Prejudice" continues Monday and Tuesday nights at 9.