Of the four TV adaptations, I have seen E2, E3 and E4 many times. I dislike E2 because of the Hollywood saccharine, unrealistic production design and Gwyneth Paltrow’s simpering performance. E4 has some very good things but is a bit too glossy, and Romola Garai was misdirected. Overall I prefer E3 (Beckinsale). I was aware of E1, which dates from 1972, but the cover of the DVD alone is enough to put one off, suggesting as it does the worst excesses of ‘costume’ drama, with Emma looking like 21 going on 50.
However, HMV’s recent bankruptcy has enabled me to acquire the DVD of E1 for only £5, a bargain for four hours of JA whatever the quality. I have now watched it and been pleasantly surprised. Not everything in it is good. Mr Knightly is (or appears to be) far too old, even though I am not in the ranks of those who view the character as a cradle snatcher or even a quasi-paedophile. The colour rendering of indoor scenes is very washed out. But among things I noticed favourably are:
a. Good extended coverage of the Emma/Harriet friendship, which seems realistic;
b. a sustained demonstration of what a ghastly old bore Mr Woodhouse is, although his character is redeemed a bit towards the end. He features much more than in other adaptations;
c. Miss Bates portrayed properly as a decayed gentlewoman instead of a congenital idiot, and having a sly appreciation of how she is viewed;
d. Mrs Elton physically attractive, domineering and not at all ludicrous. Her take-over of the Donwell Abbey scene particularly good;
e. Some realistic outdoor scenes, with the locations not too polished up as they tend to be in later adaptations. The Box Hill picnic seems very natural;
f. Frank Churchill the right combination of good looks, charm and weakness of character. Not too nasty as in E4, or too gorgeous as in E3;
g. Mr Knightly very well played despite the age issue;
h. Mr Elton suitably smooth and repulsive but with the correct social élan and presence. Emma properly shown as beginning to realise her danger before the proposal in the coach;
i. A very good Mr Weston (this is a role which seems to always come off well in adaptations). But Mrs Weston miscast with the actress unfortunately not meriting the description given by Frank after their first meeting;
j. Jane Fairfax properly portrayed as accomplished, intelligent and physically attractive (why else is an eligible young man like Frank Churchill engaged to her?), but very internalised;
k. The necessary existence of servants properly shown but not artificially emphasised;
l. No silly scenes with artificial snow!
m. Realistic costuming, even if unflattering and very ‘pastel’ to modern eyes;
n. The gypsy scene very convincing.
There is a still a huge gap in the middle, because Emma is portrayed in a rather pallid way, and there is little chemistry between her and Mr Knightly. But I would urge anyone who can acquire this DVD, to do so.