Now under the title of "Masterpiece," the Austen adaptations begin with "Persuasion," the last of six novels by the British writer, who died at age 41. The story charts the star-crossed love of Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) and Capt. Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones).
"I think in many ways, 'Persuasion' is a perfect book," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for "Masterpiece." "I also think it's one of her deeper books, as opposed to 'Emma' or 'Northanger Abbey,' which are romantic comedies. 'Persuasion' is about redemption, about second chances, and I thought that would be a strong way to begin."
Even more than in Austen's other works, such as "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion" deals with characters who are roiling with passion but constrained by the social mores of their time. That's certainly true of Elliot, whose previous proposal of marriage from Capt. Wentworth was rejected a few years earlier by Anne's vile father, Sir Walter (Anthony Head). All those repressed emotions are a veritable banquet for an actor to play, Hawkins says.
"That's what's so nice about a role like this one, that it has so much depth to plunge into," the actress says. "There's all that stuff that is buried underneath, and so much is said with the eyes. You become aware during the course of both this film and the book of how much stuff really is going on underneath. That's a gift to an actor, because you can show as much or as little as you like. There's so much tension there. Anne seems to be almost passive and reactive to what is going on, but there is real pain underneath."
It helped, too, that "Persuasion" was filmed on location in the English town of Bath, the setting for much of the action, Hawkins adds.
"That was fantastic." she says. "I had only passed through Bath before, but to actually live and work in it, to run along the streets where Jane Austen would have done so herself, was wonderful.
"It's the very city that is described in the book, and it's just beautiful. It was so easy to believe that you're there, because you are surrounded by beautiful Georgian architecture. It's a magical place, and I completely fell in love with it. It made my job much easier because not only did I have wonderful costumes, but I had this amazing set. To walk down the streets that she wrote about in her diaries and letters and mentioned in other books, and to go to the places where she stayed, it was amazing to enter Jane Austen country like that. It really helped."
In addition to "Persuasion," the PBS Austen festival includes two earlier adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma," previously telecast on A&E Network, as well as new adaptations of "Northanger Abbey," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Mansfield Park." There's also a new biographical drama called "Miss Austen Regrets," which speculates on the love life of Austen herself.
Four of the Austen adaptations were crafted by British screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose 1995 miniseries adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, is widely considered to be a definitive version of the piece. In fact, Firth's performance was so iconic that he was later cast in the Austen-inspired "Bridget Jones's Diary" as Mark Darcy, a character based directly on that earlier role.
Fans of that miniseries adaptation especially remember an electrifying scene in which Firth's Darcy takes an impulsive swim in a pond near his home estate of Pemberley, then has an impromptu reunion with heroine Elizabeth Bennet. It's an unforgettable moment that Austen never wrote.
"The wet shirt scene in 'Pride and Prejudice' is not in the book, but Andrew sensed that [Darcy's] physicality needed to be portrayed," Eaton says. "[Andrew] is very aware that it was about love and passion, all buttoned up. These are young people who have very strong feelings for each other, and there's a lot at stake."
"I think the success of the whole thing had a lot to do with Colin Firth's wonderful performance, but I was trying the whole time to make a point about the contrast between social man and natural man, as it were," Davies says. "Darcy is bound about by what he sees as his obligations to a very formal society, which means he has to spend hour after hour buttoned up and on his best behavior, being polite to very boring rich people.
"I wanted to show Darcy as a human animal who took pleasure in physical things, and I thought that would be an ideal moment. He is coming back to Pemberley, where he is going to host a house party for the same bunch of boring people, and what's nicer than to plunge into another element and have some moments entirely to himself? I never really thought about a 'wet-shirt' scene. I thought it was a scene of social embarrassment without any sense of erotic charge, which it seems to have done."
Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files"), who scored a sensation in Davies' "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," is the new host for the classics portion of the series -- a choice that was a no-brainer, Eaton says.
"Her performance in 'Bleak House' was a revelation, just breathtaking," Eaton says. "That was a whole other Gillian Anderson, and when I got to know her a little bit, I realized what a great respect she had for 'Masterpiece Theatre' and the programming that we do.
"She thoroughly understood what public television is, because she has lived in this country for so long, but she was raised in England and now lives there, so she also knows about British drama. She also has an appeal to a whole potentially new audience for 'Masterpiece,' so it just made a lot of sense."
Hosts for the two other "Masterpiece" components, mystery and contemporary productions,will be announced at a later date, Eaton says.