You Can’t Watch the Same Box-Set Twice

I have yet to come across Heraclitus in my Greek studies but it was he who famously said, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ If you think about it, this is true for two reasons; first because the river is constantly moving and is not the ‘same’ river as it was even a moment ago; and secondly because you are not the same person as yesterday.

This requires some thinking about. We tend to view natural phenomena like rivers, mountains, seas etc, as fixed and discrete objects. Yet they change every day. Rivers change in a more obvious way than, say, mountains but even a mountain is different from moment to moment and never more so than in these days of climate change. (Incidentally I think people should stop climbing mountains, especially Everest which is now so litter-strewn as to become an object of global shame; not to mention the cost to Sherpas in rescuing people.) But we don’t even need climate change for Heraclitus’ comment to be valid, and even such a fixed object as a house is different in many ways from one day to the next. The air in it is different; objects are moved, even the atmosphere changes according to who is there.

The other half of the equation is the change in us. We are not the same from one moment to the next, though we imagine ourselves to be. This ‘persistence of being’ is necessary if we are to function at all; yet at every moment cells are dying and regenerating, our thoughts are changing and our emotions are changing. Even if we think we stand still or go round in circles, we are mistaken; there is no standing still and every circle is in fact a spiral, as Dante well knew.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise to find that I can still get something new from watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The best novels give something fresh with every new reading: can the same be true of TV? Happily it can. For my money the Beeb’s 1996 version is the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen: I could write reams about the music, the settings, the costumes, the houses and the parks, but this time around it was the acting that caught my eye. Being someone who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag it’s always been something of a black art to me, but I found myself noticing more details this time around; nuances of voice and expression; the reactions of figures in the background, all of which mirror the subtle ways in which Austen herself builds up her effects, layer upon imperceptible layer. There’s very little in the way of ‘action’ in the modern sense – no car crashes or fights, no police chases, no glitz or glamour, no distractions. Nothing is hurried; the series takes its time and in six hour-long episodes (happily made in the era when an hour was an hour, not fifty minutes plus recaps and previews and trailers) the action unfolds. Though not everything in the novel is covered, no sub-plot is neglected and the ironies of the original emerge without being glaringly signposted. Those with selfish intent end up achieving the opposite of their aims; and as Miss Prism so keenly observed, the good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I think Mary Bennett is a sort of Miss Prism and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a prototype Lady Bracknell…

Kirk out