The plot thickens

This dumbed-down take on a literary classic patronises its female audience

<strong>Lost in Austen

Oh, this is bad. This is very bad. In fact, this is so awful I'm tempted to dash round to Peter Fincham's house right now, cold compress in hand. The stuff the poor guy has inherited! Dear God, I would love to have been at the meeting when, after his appointment as ITV's director of television last February, he was first shown a list of the stuff his new colleagues had already commissioned. The horror, the horror. "So, that's Harley Street, Peter: it's Casualty, with extra sex. Which will more than compensate viewers for the loss of Echo Beach - except, don't forget, we are bringing back Moving Wallpaper, only this time Jonathan, the useless producer, will be working on a one-off zombie show starring - wait for it! - Kelly Brook . . . What's that? No, honestly: she's quite a creditable little actress these days. Not too expensive, either. Not since she split with Billy Zane. But enough of that. We want to tell you about Lost in Austen, which, in a sentence, is to Pride and Prejudice what Life on Mars was to The Sweeney. Yes, literary time travel. It's got bonnets. It's got big houses. It's got Hugh Bonneville."

You couldn't make it up, and yet it's so much worse than I feared. I was spitting with indignation even before I started watching the first episode (3 September, 9pm): I had read something on the internet which informed me that the series would breathe "new life into well-loved characters". What? Austen's characters are unimprovable: they need "new life" the way Beethoven's Fifth needs a Hammond organ and a solo by Duffy.

But this was as nothing to how I felt afterwards. The last time female viewers were this patronised (this tripe is aimed so obviously at us feather-brained girls that it might as well be an ad for Lancôme Juicy Tubes), it was 1973 and someone in the Pebble Mill studio was telling us how to make a tea cosy out of our husbands' old pyjama bottoms.

While I don't entirely despise how this "drama" assumes that all women like Pride and Prejudice, what I do seriously take objection to is the idea that the things we love about it are: "The love story . . . the manners . . . the courtesy." Right. So let's forget the flawless writing, the genius plotting and the savage wit, shall we? And let's not read any other novels either, be they by Jane Austen or anyone else. Far too difficult, that. No, let's just read Pride and Prejudice over and over again until - to paraphrase Amanda Price, the 21st-century heroine of this icky dross - it becomes "part of who we are and what we want".

Amanda, who works in customer services, reads P&P all the time. Blessed with a belching boyfriend and a mother who thinks she should marry this pisshead, Amanda (Jemima Rooper) can't get enough of the Bennets, which is just as well, because now - having gone through a portal in her knicker-strewn bathroom - she is stuck with them, and not a mobile-phone signal to be had.

At first, this freaked her out. She thought she might be on a reality TV show and, for reasons I still can't fathom, ended up flashing her pubic hair at Lydia Bennet ("That's called a landing strip," she explained, helpfully). But then, thanks to the kindly attentions of Mr Bennet (Bonneville), she calmed down a bit and borrowed one of Lizzie's nice sprigged frocks (Lizzie, having gone through the portal in the other direction, is in Amanda's flat in Hammersmith and will no doubt soon be seen enthusiastically trying out her BaByliss straightening irons).

Lost in Austen is written by Guy Andrews (among other things, he brought us Prime Suspect 5 and an episode of Rosemary and Thyme called The Invisible Worm), and Clueless it ain't. On the way to church, the Bennet girls (Mary, by the way, looks disturbingly like the former maths prodigy Ruth Lawrence) asked Miss Price if she had a psalter, to which she replied: "Is that, like, a picnic thing for seasoning sandwiches?" Oh, the temerity of it. To take one of the finest novels in the language, and to reduce it to this.

What next? Amanda has already snogged Bingley. Next week, we'll probably find her pawing Darcy's breeches as Lady Catherine de Burgh, standing proxy for us all, looks on, appalled.

Pick of the week

Earth: the Climate Wars
Or climate change for dummies. Scary, though.

A Number
10 September, 9pm, BBC2
Rhys Ifans and Tom Wilkinson in Caryl Churchill's play about human cloning.

The 9/11 Faker
11 September, 9pm, Channel 4
Tania Head claimed she'd survived the twin towers. Only she hadn't.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.