• Deborah Yaffe

A wet shirt and a centennial

The venerable British Broadcasting Corporation turns 100 this year, a century after the launch of its first daily radio service. To mark the momentous occasion, the BBC has pulled together a website featuring photos and oral histories from its archives, as well as a digital collection of “100 key objects that tell the inside story of the BBC.”


The lineup includes nods to the technical work of getting programs on the air (cameras, microphones, transmitters) and mementoes of the famous people who crossed the broadcaster’s path (the typewriter on which Alistair Cooke wrote his “Letter from America,” the radio script for Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” the scathing report on David Bowie’s 1965 audition for a performance slot). Overall, it’s a feast of Proustian madeleines for anyone raised on Desert Island Discs, Only Fools and Horses, or Blue Peter. (And by “anyone,” I mean my husband.)


For Janeite purposes, however, the collection is chiefly interesting for its inclusion of perhaps the best-known costume ever featured in a Jane Austen adaptation: the white linen shirt worn, wetly, by Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


Under the heading “Why is it significant?” the BBC website explains that “Pride and Prejudice transformed the costume drama, in proving beyond doubt that it need not be stuffy and that large audiences would respond to it.” Arguably, the wet shirt – and, more broadly, the impeccable production values and smoldering sexiness embodied in the 1995 P&P – helped ignite contemporary Austenmania,


Indeed, the wet shirt has already featured in at least one previous exhibit – the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2016 show “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” “The swimming scene with Darcy’s emergence from the lake is so well-known that some readers are surprised to discover it does not feature in Austen's novel at all!” the BBC notes.


Although the website's wet-shirt page includes a clip of the relevant scene, it won’t play on my American computer. (Not that I've tried several times or anything.) I guess I’ll just have to queue up my DVD one more time.

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