TV review: Emma, Sunday, BBC1

PERHAPS it really was an Emma too far. After several fairly recent versions, the BBC's four-part adaptation of Jane Austen's most charming novel limped on to the screen after a protracted production process – the script has been kicking around for a decade.

And, judging by reports that ratings figures have been lower than usual for a prestige costume drama, it seems as if it might have limped off again, in the process perhaps a death blow to the BBC's already-threatened expensive "bonnet adaptations".

That's a shame, because there have been some very good things about this version, which with the scope of four episodes to unfold the story has allowed it to breathe and introduced some minor treats. For instance, for once it gave some background to Harriet Smith, Emma's easily influenced friend, by showing scenes of her home and school rather than presenting her as a random, rootless character. That helps ground the story in Austen's carefully delineated class structure, where the Woodhouses' wealth and Smith's poverty are crucial to understanding their relations.

And the usually completely overlooked role of John Knightley, the hero's brother, was turned into a wonderfully dry character, a proto-grumpy old man but with a good heart.

Other aspects were, perhaps, more a matter of personal taste. For me, Christina Cole's icy take on the annoying Mrs Elton couldn't touch Juliet Stevenson's sublimely comic portrayal in the 1996 film, but Rupert Evans's flirtatious Frank Churchill seemed more believable than Ewan McGregor's uncomfortable film version (with hideous wig).

While Romola Garai's Emma may have slightly exaggerated her daffy expressions, and Jonny Lee Miller's idea of making Mr Knightley less stuffy was to make him strangely cheery, both are fine actors who committed fully to their interpretations of the roles and their scenes together did spark.

However, all that is nitpicking. The actual structure of the adaptation has been hugely uneven and it's probably this, rather than actor preferences, which has made even some of the usual costume drama audience lose interest. After two instalments which dragged, last night's final episode seemed to cram in about half of the action of the book. It almost felt like a race to the finishing line.

Whoosh! There went the excursion to Box Hill and Emma's humiliation of poor, silly Miss Bates. Mr Knightley's reproof – "badly done, Emma!" – was almost thrown away and the rift between them lasted all of a minute. Whoosh! There's the revelation that Frank and Jane are secretly engaged. Whoosh! Harriet's in love with Knightley. So is Emma. But luckily it's reciprocated. Whoosh!

And then, perhaps feeling that Austen's ending lacked drama, adapter Sandy Welch curiously chose to have the story climax not with the happy and convenient union of two appropriate social equals, but with the fulfilment of Emma's hitherto unsuspected burning desire to visit the seaside. It's not a terrible idea, but not really necessary, possibly a result of overthinking the script during its long development.

The costumes, sets and photography were, naturally, excellent and it really would be sad if this were the last gasp of the tradition. Next time, let's hope for a more unusual choice of story and less messing around.

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