Every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies…
--Henry Tilney, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey
What do Jane Austen and Her Majesty's Secret Service have in common? A great deal, it would seem. In fact, I'm starting to think there is some sort of conspiracy afoot.
Why else would all these alumni of Austen movie adaptations end up in my favorite British TV series, MI-5 (known in the UK as Spooks)?
- Peter Firth, a/k/a Henry Tilney of the 1986 Northanger Abbey, plays Harry Pearce, head of MI-5's counter-terrorism dept.
- Matthew MacFadyen, a/k/a Mr. Darcy of the 2005 P&P, plays agent Tom Quinn.
- Rupert Penry-Jones, a/k/a Capt. Wentworth of the 2007 Persuasion, plays lead agent Adam Carter.
- Gemma Jones, a/k/a Mrs. Dashwood of the 1995 S&S, plays operative Connie James.
- Anna Chancellor, a/k/a Caroline Bingley of the 1995 P&P mini, plays MI-5 boss Juliet Shaw .
- Hugh Laurie, a/k/a Mr. Palmer of the 1995 S&S, guested as MI-6 smartass Jools Siviter.
- Robert Hardy, a/k/a Sir John Middleton of the 1995 S&S, guested as Sir John Barry.
- Oliver Ford Davies, a/k/a Dr. Harris of the 1995 S&S, guested as Sir 'Dicky' Bowman.
- Anthony Head, a/k/a Sir. Walter Eliot of the 2007 Persuasion, guested as legendary spy Peter Salter.
- Simon Woods, a/k/a Mr. Bingley of the 2005 P&P, guested as the PM's son.
What's even stranger is that their personae on MI-5 are often strangely reminiscent of their Austen characters.
Later, I found it personally significant that Matthew MacFadyen's MI-5 character Tom Quinn was replaced by agent Adam Carter, played by Rupert Penry-Jones—who later became Capt. Wentworth in the 2007 Persuasion. I was as torn between my loyalties to Tom Quinn and my new crush on Adam Carter as I was when I first started wondering if Captain Wentworth might supplant Darcy as my favorite Austen hero.
Then, having caught as many episodes as I could of what was aired on American TV, I started renting the DVDs, starting with season 1, to see the episodes I'd missed and re-watch the ones I'd already seen. And what do you know but Hugh Laurie, a/k/a Mr. Palmer of the 1995 S&S, shows up in season 1 as a muckety-muck in MI-6. Granted, he's channeling more Dr. House than Mr. Palmer for his role, but still…
There's more: Anna Chancellor, Miss Bingley of the 1995 P&P mini, shows up in season 4 as Harry's (Peter Firth's) boss and starts being very Miss Bossy Bingley. She even has some romantic history with Harry, who is admired by another spy, Ruth. Any minute I just know Anna Chancellor is going to start mocking Ruth's fine eyes.
No, I told myself. It must all be just an amusing coincidence, or simply the natural result of a small pool of British actors who inevitably end up in a long-running, high-quality production. Still, you have to admit it's pretty odd that in one scene that takes place in an episode from season 2,four of the five actors were Austen film alumni: Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), Henry Tilney (Peter Firth), Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), and Dr. Harris of Sense and Sensibility (Oliver Ford Davies). Here they were, all sitting around a table trying to figure out how to recover and hide the theft of one billion dollars from a British bank so that England didn't have a crash of its financial markets. One wonders what their Austen characters would do. Mr. Darcy would probably see if he could track down the thief in some dicey London neighborhood, while Henry Tilney would offer his services as co-tracker and wit, which would be the perfect foil to Darcy's straight man. I see a buddy picture in this. In the meantime, Sir John would invite Dr. Harris to shoot with him, followed by a big picnic at Barton Park so that they could take their minds off the whole disagreeable business.
But why should we stop with that scene? Wouldn't it be fun if all these former Austen movie folks stepped into their Austen characters on MI-5 whenever we least expect it; say, in the middle of some heart-stopping action sequence? I posed this "what if" on the janeaustenaddict.com forum, and got this response from DKDC:
"Hugh Laurie would recreate the annoying husband while talking to Peter Firth, aka Mr. Tilney. Rubert Penry-Jones, while in the middle of an interrogation with a terrorist, starts reciting "You pierce my soul. I am half hope half agony..." etc etc."
Just when I'd about convinced myself that the Austen/MI-5 connection was all an amusing coincidence, I watched a scene that gave me pause.
In the scene, Rupert Penry-Jones checks into a clinic for some much-needed rest. He has a suitcase and a book in his hand. The book? Persuasion.
The person who checks him in says," You fond of Jane Austen?"
"Yeah," says RPJ, "she noticed things."
Friends, take notice. Somewhere in here is the key to a great mystery. Or a grand conspiracy. Or watching too many episodes of MI-5 is bound to make one paranoid.