Entertainment & Arts

Death Comes to Pemberley: Darcy takes on murder mystery

Matthew Rhys as Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley
Image caption No longer a heartthrob? Matthew Rhys plays a post-Pride and Prejudice Darcy

Death Comes to Pemberley, PD James's crime-busting sequel to Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, is bringing literary heart-flutterer Mr Darcy back to life on the BBC this Christmas.

It's been two decades since Jane Austen's hero appeared dripping wet after a dip, in the definitive television adaptation of the literary favourite.

Colin Firth made his name as the dark-haired, smouldering incarnation of Darcy, who eventually fell in love with Elizabeth Bennet in a happy-ever-after end to the story.

The new drama is set on the Darcys' estate six years after the end of Austen's tale, and actor Matthew Rhys is charged with taking on this well-loved character, now settled into married life with children.

"They said 'do you want to play Mr Darcy' and I said 'no! absolutely not! But then they said it wasn't for Pride and Prejudice but Death Comes to Pemberley," says the Welshman.

"It's a different Darcy, he's six years older, mellower and wiser, but it's still the same character.

"I'm the Darcy that everyone knows, but there's that whiff of dramatic licence that I clung to dearly so I could say he was slightly different.

"I've made him a lot more Welsh and he's of a similar height to me. But the heavy lifting is left to Colin [Firth]," explains Rhys, meaning that Darcy's sensual dips in the lake have been left behind.

Image caption Darcys past include (clockwise) Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen and Laurence Olivier from a 1940 film

Crime writer PD James has created a murder mystery-costume drama 'mash-up' to take the Pride and Prejudice tale forward, which Rhys calls a "very shrewd move".

"I think there are about 50 supposed sequels to the novel. This doesn't set you up for direct comparisons of a sequel, and PD James is writing in a style that she's incredibly adept in, but still using incredibly famous characters.

"It's a bit of a win-win… You're ticking a lot of boxes," says the 39-year-old.

Rhys hints at concern over how the viewing public will take to the mini series, because it throws two major genres into the same pot.

"There's an element of a curveball to this. It's not a straightforward costume drama, it's an amalgamation of styles. Viewers might not be sure where to place it or they might say 'this is fresh take on period drama'.

"But costume crime-fighting is a lot more interesting because there are no computers, no DNA. Human intuition is always a lot more compelling to watch," says the actor.

A lot has been made in the press about a face-off between the BBC's Death Comes to Pemberley and ITV period colossus Downton Abbey.

They are both major offerings on our Christmas TV screens - even though the shows aren't pitched directly against one another in the schedules.

Image caption Pemberley's Georgian mystery has to be tackled by candlelight
Image caption Elizabeth Darcy - formerly Bennet - is played by Anna Maxwell Martin

Pemberley star Rhys downplays the new drama's chances of overcoming its rival.

"I don't think we can measure up to Downton, they have a pre-made army of fans. They're already the juggernaut, we're the curveball. They're the loved and revered heavyweight championship boxer, we're the wildcard coming in from the left."

He jokes about another way to settle any rivalry: "I'd love to see the casts of Death Comes to Pemberley and Downton do something like a celebrity edition of Total Wipeout - and it would have to be done in period costume."

Rhys is no stranger to costume drama, starring in an adaptation of Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and 1950s thriller The Scapegoat.

His screen career has been divided between the UK and US as the star of Brothers and Sisters and The Americans, which he says caused some problems when filming on Death Comes to Pemberley got under way.

"Stupidly and arrogantly I went straight from The Americans to Pemberley and thought I was coming home to a genre and period I know, then I put the breeches on after six months of wearing polyester and jumping over cars.

"Upper class landed gentry are a bit of a stretch for me and after the first couple of days of rehearsal I thought I'd better pull up my socks here," he explains.

Rhys adds that acting in period dramas is "certainly not easy pickings", adding: "I do have a love for the variation that I'm incredibly lucky to do".

The three-part drama may be self-contained, but is there a chance of Pemberley becoming a place that is regularly strewn with bodies like Midsomer?

In a jocular fashion, Rhys comes up with a pitch for programme executives.

"You could have Lizzie Bennett as a regular crime fighter. When she turns up to a dance, someone - preferably with a Scottish accent - tells her there's been a murder.

"As Darcy, I could just top and tail it - she'd solve the murder mystery after an hour, come home and I'd ask her how it was from behind my newspaper."

Death Comes to Pemberley starts on BBC One on 26 December at 2015 GMT and continues on the 27 and 28 December.

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