Picture this – we are following a young woman in early nineteenth-century finery running away from a huge country house. Our heroine is making her way deeper into the estate, she has breached the ha ha and opened a gate all by herself – we see her running into the woods up on the horizon and we know what this means – there is trouble afoot. Fanny Price would be calling out her well-intentioned wisdom – petticoats are about to get ruined.
‘Death by Persuasion’, an episode of the popular ITV Television series Midsomer Murders, is definitely intent on mimicry and appropriation of Jane Austen settings and scenes right from the off. However, further appreciation of the show reveals that this is not to be a faithful adaptation of the novel Persuasion. There is no submission to the text and no quoting of famous lines from this or any other Austen works.
Nonetheless, there is deliberate reference made to the symbols, characters, aesthetic and tone of Austen. From the opening shots we are awash with familiar feelings and colours, the fashions, the country houses and the picturesque. Mentions of quadrilles are designed to conjure up the time period, dramatic settings and previous dramatisations of our author. We are aware of the Austenesque being consciously called to mind. Midsomer Murders follows an achingly familiar format, just like an Agatha Christie or a James Bond novel where certain things can be counted upon to have happened by a certain chapter. We all know that the ‘3 or 4 families in this village’ are going to experience a predictable outcome – someone will die, and someone will be found culpable. The question in both cases is who and why, and the use of Jane Austen visuals and scenes enables the writer (Chris Murray) and director (Alex Pillai) to offer up a more imaginative and entertaining take on their otherwise predictable format.
Just as the new £10 note offers misreadings of Jane Austen (for example, its irony-blind quotation from Pride and Prejudice or the reworking of Cassandra’s very rough and not particularly flattering but perhaps more natural sketch of her sister Jane), what happens next to our heroine is not a part of the recognised Austenian narrative. The familiar quill nib we see is not raised to a piece of paper on a little wooden table in a cottage parlour, but is extended to the neck of our poor miss. It falls, a poisoned pen in more ways than one. We are now intrigued as to what will be said and what will be consciously hidden. We know that we must listen carefully to conversations between the expectedly limited cast. Normally in Austen, if not in Midsomer, we would expect safety in our little group, a self-contained bubble of characters uniquely familiar to one another. Now, just as with the hidden identities revealed in Emma, or Sense and Sensibility, we know that certainly not everyone in the group is to be trusted.
We cut to a familiar scene – a picnic, about to take place outside in the pleasurable country air. We meet the mysterious and enigmatic, yet strikingly handsome Dr Solomon Franks (John Macmillan) and his spirited and boldly besotted receptionist Miss Jane Everard (Thalissa Teixeira). We are introduced to the headstrong, obstinate daughter of the hosts, Polly Oswood (Jodie Tyack). The group are gathered at Wickham Hall to take part in a ‘Gorgeous Georgians’ immersive experience. We learn that the current Lord and Lady of the Manor, James and Kitty Oswood (Samuel West and Claire Skinner), are intending to revitalise the future of their house and have hatched a plan, with the help of their family members Ray and Nell, to ride on the coattails of tenuous heritage hearsay, that Jane Austen once passed through the village, partaking in some tea at the local tea shop. The marriage plot looms large in our memories here and we the viewer are scanning their relationships for holes, not sure if we care about them or not, for they are profiteering from Jane Austen. Our village tour is widened as we meet the sallow Gemma Christie (Susie Blake), who is also attempting to ingratiate herself in the village hierarchy as the chair of the Jane Austen Friendship Circle and proprietor of the Jane Austen tea shop. Another blatant attempt to capitalise financially on the Austenian heritage of the village. We learn that Gemma is not all that she hopes that she seems to be, and we find her in cahoots in the local doctor’s surgery with James Oswood’s step-mother, the haughty and bitter Mary Oswood (Georgie Glen). Reminiscent of the snobbish Mrs Norris and Mrs Elton, once again she raises the question if any of these relationships can be trusted. (We as a viewer may well be wondering if we trust the director with his handling of the storytelling).
This simple regency set-up is juxtaposed with the squeaky clean, clinically coutured labs of a local IT company, set on proving the economic value of the very latest in drone technology. The pendulum swing between the two settings draws us to question different time periods and cultural atmospheres. There is an implication that the past was much simpler, cultures conservative yet community-based, and that the modern technological age is more sinister and unfeeling.
But this is not simply a gentle rewriting of Austen as a different world. The past itself is not an entirely innocent character in our tale. There are flashbacks of seasons gone by, of school days and bullying. We hear of a fatal fire that still licks at the heels of people in the present. Skeletons are unearthed, and photo albums of the past are reminiscent of the huge chest in Catherine Morland’s room in Northanger Abbey. The smog of blackmail curls around the coattails of the main characters and the intrigue of two deaths gives the merest tinge of a gothic melodrama.
The local police inspector strides back and forth between these two worlds accompanied by his side-kick and shadowed by the quirky tension of his family life, a theme that we immediately recognise as a plot mechanism that Austen hung many an intriguing story upon. Through this juxtaposition we get to reimagine what Jane Austen might have included in her observations of country living had she been writing in the present day. One character searches in vain for that blasted mobile phone signal down by the folly in the middle of nowhere. Familiar camera shots used by costume drama producers the world over trick us back into Jane Austen’s world – long shots of a never-ending lake as we travel up to a huge house turn out to be captured by a haunting drone. The oak panelled interiors of the House surround the Lord of the Manor, James Oswood, as he sits aghast at a laptop viewing threatening emails and blackmail shots. The sight of A Lady lighting up a cigarette whilst in full bonnet and pelisse makes us catch our breath, as perhaps it is designed to do.
We have our fair share of smouldering soldiers in red frock coats as described in Pride and Prejudice. Could the wearer be a Wickham cad in disguise? Is this a subliminal sign? We are invited to a ball at Wickham Hall where we enter intimate and graceful rooms set abroad with candles and all of a flurry with fans. The references to the tightness of the policemen’s breeches turn the atmosphere into more of a farce than a theatrical. Sadly, this show is not subtle nor is the script a well-crafted or faithful rendition of Austen’s turn of phrase.
The link here is more of a conversation, using signs, symbols and Austenesque triggers as a backdrop for the story. There are references dropped in to the power of a first love – one that Lydia Bennet may have liked. And we meet other young couples whose destinies we ponder. Perhaps the only link to the title and to Jane Austen’s acclaimed and lauded ‘most romantic’ novel is that there is a plot twist referring to the constancy of love over time and the reappearance of a chance for lovers to be together after a long interruption. Alas, these two characters are not to have a happy ending. The beloved sister Nell turns out to be much less than a Jane Bennet to dear Kitty Oswood. She is not a principled, calm or independent woman, but a violent criminal who has a dysfunctional attachment to her sister.
A love triangle of Kitty, Ray and James is revealed at the end as the detectives unravel this tale of blackmail, unrequited love and hidden attraction. References are made by the clumsy coppers to Jane Austen’s novels “always ending with a wedding or two.” The irony that Jane Austen may have intended to infuse into these “happy” endings is not understood or hinted at. The sniggering reference from the policeman who whilst nodding at James and Ray declares himself “not sure that would happen in a Jane Austen novel” jangles. The inference seems derogatory to both Austen and our modern tale. Jane wrote candidly about love in her time and as she and her community understood it. Who knows what she may have chosen to communicate had she been living in today’s world? This episode did not persuade.
Midsomer Murders: Death by Persuasion was first broadcast on ITV1 on 13th May 2018.