Austen Chat: Episode 6
December 7, 2023
Jane Austen & Mr. Wickham: A Visit with Adrian Lukis
In this episode, we welcome Adrian Lukis, the actor who made the role of George Wickham his own in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. We discuss his experience filming the beloved miniseries, his critically acclaimed one-man play Being Mr. Wickham, and his thoughts on everyone’s favorite Austen rogue!
Adrian Lukis has been acting since the tender age of nine, when he played St. George in the school play. He has enjoyed a varied and successful career in television, film, and theatre. Best known to JASNA members for his portrayal of Mr. Wickham in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Lukis has had recurring roles in The Bill, Judge John Deed, Peak Practice, Toast of London, and 2022’s SAS: Rogue Heroes. He is a familiar face in British dramas and mysteries, including Downton Abbey, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple, Death in Paradise, and Prime Suspect, as well as the speculative fiction series Black Mirror. Lukis co-wrote Being Mr. Wickham with Catherine Curzon.
Show Notes and Links
Many thanks to Adrian Lukis for appearing as a guest on Austen Chat!
You can listen to Austen Chat here or on your favorite podcast app: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and other streaming platforms.
Credits: From the Austen Chat podcast. Published December 7, 2023. © Jane Austen Society of North America. All rights reserved. Photo: Jane Austen Society of North America. Music: Country Dance by Humans Win.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Breckyn Wood: Hello Janeites, and welcome to a very special episode of Austen Chat, a podcast coming to you from the Jane Austen Society of North America. I'm your host, Breckyn Wood from the Georgia Region of JASNA, and let me tell you, I had to reach for my smelling salts when I first heard who our guest was going to be today.
Dear listeners, it is my absolute pleasure to welcome Adrian Lukis to the show. You all know and love him as the actor who plays George Wickham in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but he has also appeared in many other beloved British programs, including Downton Abbey, Poldark, The Crown, Toast of London, and Midsummer Murders, just to name a few. More recently, he reprised his role as Mr. Wickham in Being Mr. Wickham, a delightful one-man show that he co-wrote with author and historian Catherine Curzon. Welcome to the show, Adrian!
Adrian Lukis: Hi, thank you very much. Thank you.
Breckyn: Okay, so our opening segment is called Desert Island. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one Austen character as your pen pal, who would you choose and why?
Adrian: Well, if I was George Wickham, I think I'd probably say someone like Henry Crawford, because they could basically compare notes on women . . .
Breckyn: Live vicariously?
Adrian: Yeah, exactly. I think that would be quite fun. Although actually, strangely, with these men, they're often more—I think they're quite at ease with women. I think, strangely, they're the sort of men that women like because they can talk to women easily. I don't think women are very impressed with the sort of the guy who can do 4,000 bench press-ups and things and talk about football.
Breckyn: Sure, certainly. Yeah, I was just going to say, certainly Austen heroines are more interested in the intellectual and the charisma.
Adrian: Exactly. So, I would say at the risk of being too obvious—well, if it was me as opposed to George Wickham, I would say Elizabeth Bennet. I know it's an easy choice to make.
Breckyn: She's a popular—yeah.
Adrian: I mean, Henry Tilney could be quite fun, I guess. He's wry, he's smart, intelligent. I don't think—it's Catherine, isn't it, in Northanger Abbey? I don't think I particularly want to be writing to her.
Adrian: I don't think—well, Knightley, good fun again. Emma could be fun.
Breckyn: Honestly, I think Miss Bates could be fun, because you would at least get very long letters; you would get a lot of information. And if you were starved for entertainment on this island, maybe Miss Bates.
Adrian: But isn't Miss Bates the one that Emma is so vile about?
Breckyn: Yes, she is. She goes on and on and on and just gives so much information about everyone all the time. And if you read between the lines, you can find out a lot about what's going on.
Adrian: But, Breckyn, wouldn't that be a bit dull? I mean, she'd be saying, "Today I went to the baker, and I thought about buying some brown bread, but eventually I bought some white bread."
Breckyn: It's true, yeah. She chooses "three very dull things indeed." But it's more quantity over quality.
Adrian: Oh, quantity, definitely. Yes, no, I'm with you on quantity. There we are.
Breckyn: All right. Well, that is delightful, that we got Mr. Wickham's choice and Adrian Lukis's choice.
Adrian: Thank you.
Breckyn: So, what was your first encounter with Jane Austen? Did you read her at school? Were you already a fan before you landed the role of Wickham?
Adrian: No, I wasn't a fan, I have to say. Unfortunately, my sort of addled, slow, teenage brain was unable to appreciate the joys of Jane Austen, because I was a typical 15-year-old boy. I was interested in sport, Led Zeppelin, playing the guitar, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, and everything in between. And I don't remember a great deal about Pride and Prejudice at all, beyond it being a set textbook for what we in England called O Levels, which have now gone the way of the dinosaurs. But they used to be around when I was young—Ordinary Level. And then you had A Levels—Advanced Levels. So Ordinary Levels you took when you were 15, 16. And I remember plowing through Pride and Prejudice and the ups and downs of the lives of the Bennet girls and being spectacularly unmoved and not being at all interested in the aloof Mr. Darcy or Mr. Wickham at all. Obviously, I had to write about them in the exam, and I guess I did okay. I got the results and everything, and I didn't touch Austen again until I was in my late 30s, when Pride and Prejudice came up to be auditioned for.
And I went away and read the book and was delighted to see what a clever and wonderful writer she was. So, that became, really, my reintroduction—was going up for the part. Originally, of course, I didn't go up for Mr. Wickham, I went up for Fitzwilliam Darcy, which I don't think many people know. And from there, of course, we filmed that, and then lastly, I've returned to Mr. Wickham again in the last few years to write Being Mr. Wickham, the one-man show about Wickham and his perspective on the world.
Breckyn: Well, and many British actors kind of have gotten their start doing Austen adaptations. You see a lot of the same British actors again and again. I think for American audiences, that's particularly enjoyable, to be like, "Oh, wait, she was in this one, and then she played Mrs. Bennet in this, and now she's in another version." So why do you think her works translate to film so well? And why do you think they're so enduringly popular?
Adrian: I think they're enduringly popular because the characters are very strong; they are very cleverly written. I think there's something perhaps in the dryness of her tone as a novelist that is very hard to replicate when you're just showing scenes, you know. I forget which novel it is, is it Mansfield Park, where Sir Thomas Bertram's greatest pleasure in life was to look himself up in Burke's Peerage or something?
Breckyn: That's Persuasion.
Adrian: And he was very happy with his day. And you think, well, that utterly annihilating comment has pinned that man completely as nothing more than a narcissistic, social snob. And it's hard to necessarily translate that into film. But, clearly, the one that seems to have succeeded the best, I would say, probably, is the Pride and Prejudice that I was involved in—the 1995 version—I think, because it was very faithful to the book. I don't think it was bashing a particularly political line, which has now become very fashionable. And I think it was well played. And I think in six episodes, it had enough depth to explore the book properly. The danger when you get into a film, of course, with anything, is it can only last for whatever it is—two hours, two and a half hours. And of necessity, you have to then cut characters. I thought the Matthew Macfadyen/Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice was terrific, but I noticed that the part of Wickham was vastly reduced because they haven't got time to explore. They have to concentrate on the spine that they're particularly interested in.
But I think that she is popular—Austen is popular for all the reasons we've said. The dryness of tone, the brilliant observation of character. And often I've noticed—I'm no great Austen scholar, but I've obviously read all the books and have thought about them a bit—it seems to me there's always a redemption for the heroine. The heroine seems to—is this true?—often goes through a sort of—I think they call it anagnorisis, don't they? Sort of the awakening moment.
Breckyn: Yes, that's big in her novels.
Adrian: So, I've just done a little play, actually a little sort of "Evening of Pride and Prejudice" back at a private club in London—which I wrote—and it's interesting to see this idea of Elizabeth coming to awareness. "How despicably I have acted," she says.
Breckyn: "Till this moment, I never knew myself."
Adrian: Yes, exactly. "I could never have been more blind."
Adrian: And that's very interesting. Emma, I think, has a similar one where she realizes she's behaved in a particularly despicable way. And you know, I think that's very interesting—that there's a redemption offered at the end of the books. I'm not saying that people like Jane Austen because there's a redemption offered for the characters, but, actually, within the domesticity of the Austen novels, an enormous amount happens within the milieu of society she chooses to look at, which happens to be the middle class in the countryside. A lot happens, and human nature is very complex. So, I think that's—in a very long-winded way—that's my answer to why the characters endure.
Breckyn: I think you've hit on it exactly. And that redemption arc for the heroines speaks to a lot of people. There are some of her heroines, like Anne Elliot, who sort of —everyone else has to realize her value instead of her, you know, coming to herself or her self-knowledge. But, yeah, that's something that Austen does really well.
Let's go back and talk about filming Pride and Prejudice a little bit. What was difficult about it? What was fun? What really sticks out in your memory 30 years on?
Adrian: Well, filming is never quite as much fun as people like to imagine.
Breckyn: I'm sure.
Adrian: "Tell us about the highlights! The funny things that happened!"
Breckyn: Right. It's work.
Adrian: I mean, it's a very fair question, and it's something I do, too, when I have friends of mine—"Oh, what was he like to work with? What was she like to work with?" Which is what we really want to know, I suppose. And, of course, you have amusing times on set. Most of it, however, you're called to set, you're toiling away, you're trying to do the best you can with it. You're trying to be good. You're trying to justify the fact you were cast at all—whether they've made a terrible mistake.
Well, Colin and I—I knew Colin Firth anyway, from a film, which I had to look it up, actually, I think it was done ten years before Pride and Prejudice called Dutch Girls, from a script by William Boyd, produced by Sue Birtwistle, who produced Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 version. Colin played the lead in that. And we were about a group of public school boys abroad, public school being a private school. And that was quite fun to shoot. And so, I already knew Colin, and my first day, I think, I went up to set—it was somewhere up north. And I arrived in the hotel, and Colin, being Colin, said, "Well, what's your room like?" And I said, "Well, it's fine." He said, "Well, I bet it hasn't got a Jacuzzi like mine." And I said, "No, I don't think it has." He said, "Well, that's because you're not playing the lead. And I am." I have to say, this is Colin's sense of humor.
Breckyn: What a Darcy thing to say!
Adrian: Dry, he's got quite a dry sense of humor. And he said, "Well, you better come and look at my Jacuzzi." It sounded like, you know, "Come and look at my etchings." Anyway, I said I will come and look at your Jacuzzi later. I think we ended up in the hotel bar playing pool. We ended up going up to his Jacuzzi, and then we were—by then we'd had enough wine or beer to decide well, if there was a Jacuzzi, it should be tried. And I think we stripped off and got into this bubbling Jacuzzi and sat there drinking wine and roaring with laughter. And I remember somebody coming in, Joanna David, I think, came in shrieking, "Oh my God, you boys! Oh my!" You know, and took loads of photographs. The director came in: "Oh God, what are you doing?" And Colin said the next day, "I think we need to get those photos deleted." Because the British press being what it is, you know, naked pictures of Darcy and Wickham cavorting in a Jacuzzi—We don't know. It could have been sold for a fortune. I wish I had them!
Breckyn: What you denied the Internet. What a shame.
Adrian: What we denied the Internet. So that was quite fun. A lot of it—I mean, I do remember Susannah Harker, when I went up for the—when we had the terrifying read-through. When there are about 4,000 people in this huge room at the BBC, and they're vile, these read-throughs; we all hate them. You have to go around and introduce yourself, and they're just awful. "Hello, I'm Adrian Lukis, I'm playing Mr. Wickham." And "Hello, I'm David Bamber, I'm playing Mr. Collins." And it goes around the room, and everyone's terrified. And Colin said to me, "How are you doing?" And I said, "Okay. How are you?" And he said, "I'm absolutely terrified." And the producers are there and the makeup department and the wardrobe department. It's really frightening. Anyway, I'd been asked over to—initially somebody said, "Oh, come and meet Susannah Harker, who's playing Jane." And I said, "Yeah, great. Okay, fine.” I sort of followed her across the room and there was Susannah, and I was introduced. "Susannah, this is Adrian Lukis." And she sort of looked at me rather sort of curiously, and this person said, "Oh, you know, he's your Wickham." And she'd obviously misheard this and said, "Oh good, well gosh. Now, what I want to do then with my hair is I'd like to have it gathered up at the back, and maybe have a tress . . ." And I had to say, "No, no, not your wig man. I'm your Wickham."
Breckyn: Wig man!
Adrian: And she looked very disappointed and said, "Oh, right. Well, anyway," then sort of turned back to talk to, I think, David Bark-Jones who played Denny. Anyway, so it was a strange old thing, but we got through it. Yeah, Jennifer and Colin got together on that, which I think is pretty common knowledge. I was sort of slightly playing gooseberry, so I was sort of floating around as Colin's friend. He and I both played guitar, so we would sit there singing "How many times must a man walk down," or whatever it was we were singing at the time—early Dylan something, and strumming away while cross-legged on the floor of the hotel rooms and pretending in the day to be Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. It was all good fun.
I don't think Lydia—I don't think dear old Julia Sawalha—I think she thought I was terribly dull. I remember trying to make her laugh. We were sitting in a carriage, and I was trying to describe, which you may not know either, because you're that much younger, but there were terrible old films made by Hammer, which was a British horror company: The Bride of Dracula, Dracula Rises Again, Dracula Back from the Grave. All these sort of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing films. And they'd always go along, there was always a moment where the heroine and the young man, the hero, I suppose, would be driving along through the Black Forest in a coach, and it would break down, and she'd say, "Heavens, we can't stay the night here, Nigel!" And he'd say, "Well, there seems to be a castle up there on the hill. Perhaps we should go and knock on the door and see if they'll take us in." And up they go. And, of course, they're met by some sort of grunting servant, and they're in Count Dracula's castle. And I remember sitting with Julia saying, "Heavens! There seems to be a castle up there. The coach has broken down." She just went, "What?" And I said, "Ha ha! Perhaps we should go up there." She went, "I don't really know what you're talking about."
Breckyn: It didn't land.
Adrian: No. Well, of course, I was very old when we made that. I was 37, and I think she was probably 24 or something.
Breckyn: I didn't realize that you were—not that that's that old, but I didn't realize. You look very young and sprightly in that Pride and Prejudice.
Adrian: Thank you.
Breckyn: So, there's that scene where Lydia calls you a fine horseman. You know, you're riding back and forth on a horse. Did you already know how to ride a horse? Did you have to learn for the role?
Adrian: I'd ridden a little bit as a child, but I'd never actually taken to horses a great deal.
Breckyn: So, was that not that fun?
Adrian: Some people adore horses. Well, the trouble is—I think he's actually described, which makes me laugh, as having "the best seat in the regiment," which I always think is the best bottom.
Breckyn: Right. She's definitely talking about your butt.
Adrian: The best butt in the regiment. So, I thought, well, of course, if they say "This character plods into shot riding badly," you say, well, that's fine. But when they say he's a brilliant horseman . . . I did have to take some lessons, and I was fairly fearless, actually. That actual jump—because they get frightened that you're going to damage yourself and you're going to fall and break an arm or something—they wouldn't let me do it, and they brought in a stunt man who put on a frock coat.
And then a few years later, after that—many years later—I filmed something called The Hunt, which was, again, playing a sort of lord of the manor. It was a sort of raunchy thing. I was again playing an aristocratic bad boy, and I fell off at a full gallop.
Breckyn: Oh, my goodness.
Adrian: And I must say, yeah, I mean, I landed in this field, unable to breathe, on my back. Forty miles an hour, is what it was. And these various people from the local hunt around me are saying, "Oh, dear, have you taken a tumble?" All because the director said he wanted to go and have one more take on the shot. And, actually, the trainer said, "Well, the horse is a bit skittish, actually." "No, no, I've got to do it again." And dusk was falling, and he was on a Jeep with the camera mounted, and the horse freaked out, and I wasn't a good enough rider. I could keep going in one, but I lost my nerve, I think, and I've not ridden since then.
Breckyn: I don't blame you.
Adrian: No, it's a shame. And I think if I'd loved riding more, I would have thought, "Come on, just get back in the saddle." But I don't really.
Breckyn: Right, that sounds terrifying. Well, let's talk about Being Mr. Wickham, because it's so delightful. What was your goal in writing it? Did you want vindication for Mr. Wickham?
Adrian: Well, I've become intrigued by the process of getting older, because I am getting older. It is a strange thing. You don't think you're going to get older, and then you do. I wanted to look at that, and I wanted to look at what it was like for these cads and bounders—what happened to them. And I became intrigued by thinking about Wickham then and what would have happened to him. Whether he'd ended up in a ditch, whether he ended up in a poorhouse. Whether, like so many of those upper-class men like Beau Brummell and Scrope Davies and various others, he'd fled to France to get away from his debts. Whether he was still married to Lydia, whether he was living with a 20-year-old prostitute in Bethnal Green. Everything was up for grabs. And I became intrigued by sort of exploring that, really. And it's taken many, many, many drafts, because I'm very persnickety, I've discovered, as a writer. I keep thinking, "Oh, no, I can make it better; I can make it better." I think I've almost now, finally—five, six years later, or whatever it is—got to the point where I think the play is in fairly good shape. But I've hugely enjoyed the process of trying to invent and fill out what, in Austen's Wickham, is a fairly simple creation.
We hear most about what he's like from Darcy. Clearly, he's not a good man. I mean, there's no doubt he's not a hero. But I was intrigued by—I suppose the other thing I would say is—I was intrigued by trying to—not exactly rescue his reputation, but I've always taken the line in life that most of us would say, if we're talking about ourselves, we would defend our actions. Very rarely do we sit and say, "Do you know what? I behaved like an absolute . . . I was really terrible to that woman. I really should be punished." What we tend to say is, "Well, she was behaving like a nightmare. I didn't want to very badly, but she was nagging me all the time." Whatever it happens to be. And you talk to the woman, and they've got their version—"He was a nightmare. He was shutting me out." Everyone's got their version of events. And I thought, particularly someone like Wickham, if he could speak—which he hasn't been, really been given a voice—what would he say? And that was very interesting. And over the process of that, of course, inventing an entire life.
Breckyn: Well, and maybe that's the difference between Austen's heroes and villains, right? We talked before about how the heroines actually have that moment where they realize, "I have behaved badly and I need to change." And Darcy has that self-realization as well, right?
Adrian: He does.
Breckyn: Whereas, maybe even though we all like to think that we're the Darcys or the Elizabeth Bennets, maybe most of us are more like the Wickhams, and we want to defend our actions and justify ourselves.
Adrian: Yeah, I mean, look, I actually reread Pride and Prejudice again recently, and I have to say I've made a fairly good fist, I think, of trying to, in the play, turning Wickham into a sort of—"You know, I did one or two things that weren't great, but essentially I'm a really nice guy." And I think, actually, having reread the book again recently, I thought, "You know, he really does."
I was persuaded by a scholar I read something of who said, when Wickham leaves Meryton, it is clear that he has been coming on to the women—you know, the daughters of the shopkeepers. He's probably gone further with Lydia than we know, from what we infer, from the way Lydia speaks about Wickham, calling him "her dear George" and all this stuff—whatever. So, I remember being convinced at the time thinking, "God, so actually—" And then we find out he's run up a whole slew of debts in Meryton before he goes to Brighton, where he lets down his fellow officers because he makes all these bets that he can't honor. So, look, I mean, I have to say, I'm putting the best possible spin on the man that I can. And what I do tend to end up saying is, he's probably really good fun to go out with.
Adrian: I think you'd have a whale of a time. He'd be great with the girls. They'd all say, “Oh, Wickham's, such fun.” Darcy would be banging on about Brexit or Ukraine or something, and Wickham would say, "Oh, for heaven's sake, let's get another round in." But at the end of the evening, he'd pat his pockets and say, "I appear to have left my wallet at home." So, in a very long-winded way, to answer your question, I wanted to look at those sorts of guys and then I wanted to see how Wickham might have ended up, and I wanted to write a more cheerful version than to say, "I'm living in a gutter with no money. If I can just embezzle somebody, I might be able to survive a bit longer."
Breckyn: No one wants to watch that one-hour play! Give the people what they want! And you gave us what we wanted.
Adrian: Thank you. That's what I thought.
Breckyn: Yeah. It's certainly the most charitable version of Wickham. The fact that he and Lydia are still married is oddly inspiring. Because in the movie you think, "Oh, they're never going to make each other happy. They're going to be miserable." But also, there's a way of looking at it where maybe—I love that line where you talk about how you complement each other perfectly because you're both completely selfish or something.
Adrian: "Vain and insincere," or something.
Breckyn: Yes. You normally think of people complementing each other because they have opposing strengths or something like that, but you and Lydia, you're perfect for—you deserve each other, and end up having a lot of fun together, probably.
Adrian: I think they have a hoot!
Adrian: I really do. I think they're one of those couples, like most couples, actually—but I think they come home from a party, and she says, "What did you think of that one? I thought she was ghastly." "Oh, she was so boring!" I think they really have a good time savaging everybody else, rolling around in bed roaring with laughter. And I think they're probably—they enjoy each other in every manner. And I think she knows who she's got, she knows what sort of man he is. At the beginning of the play, of course, she's in a terrible temper because he's been flirting with somebody. And he goes, "Well, I wasn't flirting with her really." Well, he probably was. She probably is putting it on a bit. But, you know, she's one of those—"I'm not having it, Wickham." You know, "I'm not having it." So, she gives as good as she gets. And I think in the play—I mean, I've invented this character called Edmund Scutter, who's a young man who Lydia allows to flirt with her. So, Wickham's going, "It's not all me being terrible." But no, I was pleased to—I remember actually sitting at the kitchen table in my old flat, my old apartment, thinking, "What happens with Lydia?" And then thinking, "I want them to be together." I think it's a) partly, as you say, people would like it, and b) it seemed to me to be credible and fun.
Breckyn: Yeah. I think if they're both determined to sort of brush away their own faults and both determined to just have a good time—that can take you pretty far in a marriage and in a relationship.
Adrian: Yeah, totally.
Breckyn: So, I want to hear a little bit more about the writing process. Did you consult Austen's words a lot? Did you use other contemporary historical sources? Because, I mean, the script shines. Your performance is wonderful, but also the words themselves—they sound so believable coming out of Wickham's mouth.
Adrian: Well, thank you. That's very kind.
Breckyn: And that is hard to do.
Adrian: It is hard to do. It took a lot of writing. Well, I did read a lot around the subject, actually, in the end, because also I'm trying to turn it into a novel, which is another sort of challenge. I don't know if I can write a novel or not, but, then, I didn't know if I could write a play, so, you know, one just keeps sort of plowing on. I read a lot of man called Gronow, who wrote sort of recollections of the period about Waterloo and about all the stuff about Almack's gambling house and Crockford's and all these places where people would go and spend their money. I've read a lot of books about Byron and Shelley, but mainly Byron. I read some of Scrope Berdmore Davies, a biography of him. He was Byron's great friend and ended up in penury in Paris. Big book on Brummell. Loads of stuff, loads of period stuff about schools, just to try and get a sense of the period and the characters. And inevitably, I think one always feels, "Oh, if I could just get that bit in." But then you can't; you can't get everything in. And I wanted to keep the show under an hour.
There was a particular bit, it took me nearly a month to write, and I did it for the producer, and I said, "I'm not sure about this." And he said, "You know, it's great, but I just think it's got a slightly different tone, and the show is a bit too long." And I thought, that's probably right. It was Wickham trying to get into Almack's, which was the most exclusive club in London. Nobody could get in unless they were hugely titled and were approved of by the five women who sat on the board. No one of Wickham's social standing could have got in. And he's challenged by one of these guys who he meets on the street, who's a real posho, who says, "Wickham, we never see you at Almack's. Oh, sorry, forgot. Your father was a steward. Yeah. Didn't really have the breeding, did you, mate?" And Wickham says, "I'll bet you 10,000 pounds you'll see me there next Friday night." Guy says, "Yeah, bet taken, no problem." And Wickham then manages to gain access to Almack's and win his money.
Breckyn: Through his charm? Or . . .
Adrian: No, well, they were very strict on who could get in. So, in the end, I actually decided—well, partly because actually it's mentioned in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia says Denny was there with one of the other subalterns—young officers—whose name I've forgotten, who dresses up in a woman's dress.
Breckyn: Oh, yeah.
Adrian: And she says, "Oh, la, we had such fun!" And I thought, that's interesting. So, they're cross-dressing. I mean, that's not quite the right way of putting it, but clearly they're having fun. And so, the reason Wickham can get into Almack's in my story was he's thinking, "God, I've got to do this now. It's 10,000 pounds resting on this." A lot of money. I mean, probably far too much, actually. "I haven't got 10,000 pounds; how am I going to do this?" And he's larking around with his girlfriend; his mistress is there in bed, who I think I've made the one who he sets up to get Georgiana down to Ramsgate—Mrs. Younge—I think it might have been Mrs. Younge. So, he's with Mrs. Younge, and she's saying, "Oh, Wickham, I don't know which dress to wear." She says, "Hold up my dresses. Should I go for the blue one or the green one?" And he says, "Then I caught sight of myself in the looking glass, and there's this rather beautiful creature—me!" And so, he gets himself done up, and he gets his hair done and he arrives by a coach, and he sails in past the guards as the Countess de Liechtenstein or something, and whereupon these men come up and all pay court to her. One of them is one of his tormentors, who says, "Might I see you a little bit later, Countess?"
Breckyn: Are you hiding behind a fan, maybe?
Adrian: And he's got all this going on. And, of course, he wins his bet because he's able to prove to these ghastly men, when they come up and say, "You never made it." He says, "Oh, but I did." And he puts on this little voice—he says, "I think you were particularly charmed." And he wins his money. I thought it was a nice little story, but it had to go.
Breckyn: Could it make it into the novel?
Adrian: Maybe. Yeah, probably. Yes, probably. There's lots of stuff that I would like to put into the novel. The school days I've amplified quite a lot in the book, what I've written so far. It's a short section in the play, but in the book I've amplified it. He's got a best friend and that kind of stuff. But anyway, that's all work in progress.
Breckyn: I mean, you have this great way of taking Wickham and making him sympathetic, because you put him on the battlefield at Waterloo, and he's seeing all of these terrible things happen to his comrades in arms around him. And you tell the stories of him being at school and having this horrible, abusive, and maybe sexually abusive master. And he doesn't come right out and tell you everything, but there's real pain there, and I think that rounds out Wickham and makes him more sympathetic than anything else.
Adrian: I'm really glad you said that, actually. The pain thing, I think, is very, very important. You know, it's a very delicate process, I'm learning—because I'm only learning to write. I didn't want to make him a sort of witty gadabout, "then I had a fourth girl!" kind of guy. He's lived, and I think at the end of that school section he says, "I learned of the cruelty of which men are capable. And I decided, in that moment, to survive." This realization that you had to fight for yourself or you were going to be crushed. And I think that's a very relatable thing, and I liked that notion. And that he has seen—and after Waterloo, he says, “We retired”—as potentially they go up to this small town in the north of England—"I didn't want to be around the bustle and noise of London anymore." You sense something in him has shifted, and I think that's important because I think it gives depth to the character.
Breckyn: Because he's been hurt but not broken. Which is great, because like we said, we wouldn't want to see this sad, broken Wickham. He's still got that charm. He's still got a bit of the spirit. I love when he's looking out his window and watching the tryst happening across the square, and it's sort of like seeing his young self and young Lydia. That story just keeps telling itself over and over again, and the delight that he takes in that . . .
Adrian: Yes, it was such fun to write that. I remember thinking, "Gosh, the danger is we're just sort of locked in this room with this guy. There's got to be something that suggests the outside world." And very gradually this idea sort of formed: What if there was a girl who's across the square preparing to elope?
Breckyn: The delight on your face when the carriage rolls up is just so much fun to see. I really like that. The reviews of Being Mr. Wickham were overwhelmingly positive—almost fawning, you could say. My favorite line was from a New York Stage Review article which called it "a tasty bon bon." I just laughed out loud when I read that. But many reviewers also kept calling your performance effortless. But I want to ask, was it? What were rehearsals like? I'm sure, of course, a good actor makes it seem much easier than it really was.
Adrian: Well, the truth about acting is, as I'm sure you know and I think everyone really does know, is that it's never effortless. It's incredibly hard work to try and make it appear to be so. Rehearsals were hard. Rehearsals are always hard. You're just always trying to find the best way to tell the story. And it can be minute things. "Should I go to the table at this point and get a drink?" It's very hard to explain without people thinking, "Well, that doesn't sound very hard." But everything's got to be based on some sort of psychological reality and what's best for the character and how charming to make him and how dark to make it at times—all of that stuff. So, it's not effortless at all.
And I remember—for many years, I've sung the praises of Hugh Grant—for many years, when everyone, in England at least, was turning on him and going, "Oh, God, same old Hugh Grant performance. Charming, feckless, stuttering. Oh, we haven't heard that one before," and all that. And I remember saying, because I am an actor, I suppose, saying, "It's very hard to pull that off." To be charming without appearing to be too camp, you know. To be weak, but have a heart. It's very, very difficult to get the balance right. Cary Grant could do it, you know, but there's a reason why there aren't many of these guys around. It is very hard to balance it. And now I see Hugh Grant is getting all the praise that I think he's long deserved. So, effortless? No, nor has been the writing. It's never effortless. I think you're just trying very, very, very hard to make it appear to be.
Breckyn: Right, of course. And so, I'm sure that's gratifying to hear that people think that it is.
Adrian: It's hugely gratifying. Thank you.
Breckyn: Well, you've spent more time inside Wickham's head than almost anyone. So, what do you think? Is he a villain? Is he just misunderstood? Are there other Austen characters you think are more deserving of the title of villain?
Adrian: Well, Henry Crawford has a particularly, rather sort of forensic way of looking at women. I mean, there is a line which he said—which actually genuinely shocked me when I first read it, because it seems so modern—where he says—I think his sister is saying, Mary is saying, "Look, just be careful of this girl. You know, she's young, she's impressionable. Don't make her fall in love with you. Why don't you just go and have one of the others you've got dangling?" And he goes, "No, I've got to have this one. I won't do anything awful." He says, "I just want to make a small hole in that young lady's heart."
Breckyn: Yeah, that's quite a line.
Adrian: Oh, my God. It's chilling! I mean, it's fatal. "I want to bore into her heart." I remember the violence in the image was so profound. I would say Henry Crawford is a villain of a particularly different hue. I think Wickham—at the end of the day, there are two ways of going with Wickham. I could very credibly, I think, have written a part of a really parasitical, rather psychopathic man. And I think the book would justify that. Somebody who simply goes—doesn't really care about anybody; he's just in it for that moment. "Tonight, I'm gambling; I don't care. Tonight, I've got the girl; I don't care." Everything's fine, because it's in that moment. "If I have to run later, I'll run. It's fine. I'll run, and I don't care." And there is an element of that about him that's absolutely true. And maybe when I write the novel, I might up that side a little bit more.
The way I've chosen to play it, because I think it's probably closer to lots of young men, actually, and particularly of the period—They were idle men, I suppose, and they wanted to live well. And they looked at themselves and said "Well, what have I got to bring to the table? I haven't got money, but I am good looking, and I am really charming." And Wickham is written about as this sort of paragon of manliness. He walks into the room, and he's so far above all the other men, you know—all that stuff. I mean, he's clearly—really, he's a catch. And he seems very sensitive when he listens to Elizabeth speak and kind and considerate in what he says. I like to think at the end of the day he is a guy who uses what charms he has to try and get the best for himself in life. And I would probably venture to say most of us try to do that . . . most of the time.
Breckyn: Are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about, to look forward to?
Adrian: No, I'm off to Australia, to Sydney with this lot and a Q&A. And oh, something else I've just performed at the Hurlingham Club in London, which was an original piece, was a sort of look at—it was called Pride and Prejudice: The First Rom-Com?, which is quite fun. I did that with an actress. No, apart from that, I've got some filming. I'm about to film a rom-com, which I think I can just about fit in with my Australia dates, playing a sort of upper-class, very rich, rather frightening father of the lead actor, who's kind of terrifying because he's so posh and sort of brutal. That'll be quite fun. And I've just been filming a boxing film. So, various things. And I'll continue writing.
Breckyn: Yeah, and I'm certainly looking forward to the novelization of Being Mr. Wickham. I will buy that as soon as it comes out. Well, thank you so much. So, for those of you who haven't seen Being Mr. Wickham yet or who want to watch it again, it is available to rent on originaltheatre.com. That's Original Theatre spelled the British way, with R-E at the end. Thanks again, Adrian.
Adrian: Thank you very much. Lovely to talk to you.
Breckyn: Hello, dear listeners. I just wanted to ask you a favor. If you've enjoyed listening to Austen Chat, please give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts and leave a comment saying what you like about the show. The more positive reviews we get, the more people will see and hear about the podcast, and the more Austen fans we'll find to join our community. Though Emma Woodhouse may have disagreed, I side with Mr. Weston: "One cannot have too large a party," or too many Janeites. Also, just a reminder to follow JASNA on Facebook and Instagram for updates about the podcast or to send us a line at our email address firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions.
Breckyn: Okay, listeners, it's time for another sprinkling of JASNA news. Did you know JASNA sponsors a Student Essay Contest and a Young Filmmakers Contest each year? Well, the winners of the 2023 competitions have been revealed, and we're delighted to report that the study and appreciation of Jane Austen is alive and well among new generations of students, fans, and scholars.
The 2023 essay contest theme, Marriages and Proposals, was inspired by this year's Pride and Prejudice AGM theme. It seems students were inspired too, because this was a banner year for the writing competition. We received more entries than ever from high school, college, and graduate students in the U.S., Canada, and 25 other countries—the most submissions and the widest reach to date. The winning essays are now published on our website so everyone can enjoy the young scholars' contributions to Austen studies.
The 2023 Young Filmmakers Contest, which is for amateur filmmakers under the age of 30 in North America, has also wrapped up. The winning films were premiered at a special awards event during our AGM in November and are now available to view on our website. The assignment for this year's contest was to create an original short film of five minutes or less, inspired by Pride and Prejudice or by Jane Austen, her works, or her world. The submissions were judged by a panel of notable actors, filmmakers, writers, and critics. To learn more about the results of each contest and access the winning entries, check out the results announcement posted in The JASNA Post news blog.
By the way, it's not too early to start thinking about entering either contest in 2024. You don't have to be a JASNA member to participate, and they're free to enter. First-, second-, and third-place winners in each division receive cash scholarships, a year of membership in JASNA, and publication on JASNA's website. The submission deadline for the Essay Contest is June 1, 2024, and you'll find contest details and rules on the contest webpage.
If you're a young filmmaker at heart, or know someone who is, check out the contest details and rules for our Young Filmmakers Contest on the contest webpage. The deadline for film entries is June 24, 2024. Show us how Jane Austen inspires you!
Breckyn: Well, that's it for this episode. Thanks for listening, Janeites. If you're interested in joining the Jane Austen Society of North America or learning more about its programs, publications, and events, you can find them online at jasna.org. That's J-A-S-N-A dot org. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, I remain yours affectionately, Breckyn Wood.