Novel to Screenplay
Auditions and Casting
On Location
Relationships on the Set
Actors on their Roles
Applause and Awards
Film Stills
Publicity Poses
Candid Shots
Premiere/Awards Photos



This 1999 BBC miniseries is a delightful adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's unfinished novel of the same name, directed and produced by Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle of "Pride and Prejudice" fame. This miniseries centers on Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell), a virtuous and sweet young woman, whose quiet life with her widowed father is turned upside down when he marries the self-absorbed Claire Fitzpatrick (Francesca Annis). Soon, Claire's beautiful daughter Cynthia (Keeley Hawes) joins the household and attracts the attention of Roger Hamley, a family friend of the Gibsons who, unbeknownst to him, has captured Molly's heart. Many twists and turns abound before Molly can find true love. This BBC costume drama is a delight, with a wonderful performance by Waddell as Molly, a character that truly captivates the audience.

This film was made for television and is not rated.

From Novel to Screenplay

Before "Wives and Daughters," producer Sue Birtwistle and screenwriter Andrew Davies had collaborated on the acclaimed BBC Jane Austen adaptations, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma." Both were excited to tackle another female author, Elizabeth Gaskell, and to adapt her unfinished novel. Birtwistle remarks: "After doing 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Emma', I had hundreds of letters saying, 'Why don't you do this, or this, or this?' A lot of people suggested Elizabeth Gaskell to me. I started to think about doing one of her books, and liked Wives and Daughters, which I think is her best. I actually went to the BBC with another project - a modern project, in fact - and the said to me, 'Have you ever thought about doing Elizabeth Gaskell?'"1

Birtwistle adds: "I think the reason this wonderful book is so little known is that Gaskell died just before completing it. It's very clear what she wanted to happen, but not how it was to come about, so we've had great fun plotting the ending that we hoped she herself might have written... Can you imagine what people would say if we left it hanging? I think it's fairly obvious from the way things are going by the end of the book, and by the notes Gaskell left, that Roger and Molly will get together. It's a case of how they get together."2

Davies adds: "I'd done 'Pride and Prejudice.' I'd done 'Middlemarch.' I'd done 'Emma.' I'd done 'Vanity Fair.' What was I going to do next? Actually, I heard from a woman called Joan Leach, who runs the Gaskell Society, asking if I didn't think it was time I did something by Mrs. Gaskell and suggesting Wives and Daughters. So I took it away with me on holiday and read it, and when I came back I suggested it to the BBC. It turned out they had already thought that it might make a good one."3

Davies continues: "Wives and Daughters is about the ordinary mysteries of life -- where does love come from, how does it grow, how it can twist and sour and corrupt us, how it can break our hearts, how it can bring us happiness and fulfilment. And more than almost any book I know, Wives and Daughters, this neglected masterpiece, tells us what it feels like to be alive. It's so deep and penetrating and has wonderfully convincing characters. Everything springs directly out of their relationships."4 Davies also believes that "Wives and Daughters was the one where [Gaskell] really hit greatness. It's right up there with Jane Austen and George Eliot. It's got terrific insight and sympathy, and beautifully, subtly drawn characters. It's not as well known as it should be because she never finished it, and so there was always that handicap to calling it a great novel."5

As for Gaskell's intended ending, Davies adds: "She certainly intended a happy ending, and that Roger and Molly would finally get together. She finished writing it more or less where Molly is waving good-bye to Roger from the window as he's going off again to Africa. She was going to leave it another year or two before they got together again. I just couldn't bear that and neither could anybody else working on the production. Our reaction was: 'Come on, Molly, run after him! Let's get this thing settled!' So that's what we did."6. Id.

Davies also recalls his concerns with filming one of the opening scenes of the miniseries, when Mrs. Kirkpatrick steals food that has been left for Molly: "We had quite a little debate about that incident. When I read it in the book, I was thinking that she was eating it up herself so that Lady Harriet's kindness wouldn't be seen to have been wasted. But all the women who were working on the production said, no, that this is a big symbolic event, and that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is going to eventually consume all of Molly's happiness. It's a symbolic kind of eating."6. Id.

Auditions and Casting

Producer Sue Birtwistle assembled a formidable cast, including established names such as Michael Gambon, Ian Carmichael, Bill Paterson, Francesca Annis and Penelope Wilton, as well as rising stars Justine Waddell, Keeley Hawes, Tom Hollander, and newcomer Anthony Howell. At the read-through in London, said Birtwistle, writer Andrew Davies leaned over just before they started, and whispered, "If the ceiling fell in on this room, it would destroy the aristocracy of the English acting profession in one fell swoop." 7. Id.

On Location

Levens Hall, which is situated on the edge of the English Lake District south of Kendal, was used as the grand house of Squire Hamley. Most of the rooms featured in the miniseres can be seen by visitors.

Actress Francesca Annis (Mrs. Gibson) remarks that in filming the miniseries, she was concerned about period details: "For instance, you have to get the posture right; if you don't, your head falls onto your shoulders with all this ironmongery in your hair. I was brought up as a dancer, and that has helped me physically. These wonderful costumes also give you a context to work in. They help you remember that these were the leisured classes, they didn't have to rush anywhere. Nowadays one's natural mode is always to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But as Mrs. Gibson, I am able to stroll around. The clothes help with the dialogue, too. You can take your time on the long sentences. You don't have to dash out soundbites as we do nowadays."8

Bill Paterson (Mr. Gibson) enjoyed making the miniseries largely because it allowed him to delve into another period of history: "Before this started, I remember looking forward to immersing myself in the Victorian period - and it has lived up to expectations. When I go into the squire's hall, I imagine what it must have smelt like with all that ripe cheese, powerful drink and overflowing drains - it must have been an onslaught for the senses and a fantastically rich experience. We don't get that so much anymore, so this is a wonderful opportunity to step into that life - without actually having to live it and risk catching all those diseases like cholera and small pox that finished people off by the age of 25. We have the best of both worlds - the fantasy of living then, and the comfort of coming back to a cozy modern caravan and a hot lunch."9

Annis (who admits to having a soft spot for period dramas) agrees, remarking that she enjoyed the shoot for giving her the opportunity to enter into a more relaxed and gentler age: "It's years since I've done any costume drama, so that was one reason why this appealed to me. And I have always enjoyed these costume dramas with the BBC... People flick from one thing to another all the time these days. They find it hard to build up an opinion because they only watch three minutes of anything. But everything has its own graph. This grows on you if you stick with it. Its stately pace is unusual - and gripping... I'm not a contemporary freak. I can clearly imagine life without mobile phones and MTV. I like the idea of there being more order in life. It's a very hard time we're living in now. It has no ideology or sense of camaraderie. We've lost our sense of community, of valuing others and of respecting the old. Our shifting society has become too cynical. I can understand a nostalgia for a gentler age... I understand why people look back with affection on a gentler age. The life people like Mrs. Gibson led meant not rushing anywhere."10

Relationships On and Off the Set

Of seasoned actress Francesca Annis, actor Tom Hollander (Osborne Hamley) remarks: "She's an eccentric. She appears not to suffer fools gladly but there's an eccentricity about her vulnerability, a bit of madness that makes her a great combination. I put it all down to the fact that she comes from Brazil, where the nuts come from... She's not biddable or wifey. And she's totally lacking in self-pity which makes her a bit intimidating... attractive."

Hollander was also impressed by Annis' down-to-earth attitude. He recalls being impressed at her first read-through, and how upon complimenting her, she seemed genuinely surprised: "She's very innocent about her talent."11

Many of the cast members were reunited after finishing "Wives and Daughters" in later projects. Hollander was reunited with his on-screen father, Michael Gambon, in the highly acclaimed "Gosford Park." Barbara Flynn (Miss Browning) and Richard Coyle (Mr. Coxe) played Sarah Ridd and John Ridd in another period drama, "Lorna Doone." Penelope Wilton (Mrs. Hamley) and Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Lady Cumnor) starred in "Iris".

The Actors on Their Roles

Justine Waddell was fond of her character, Molly Gibson: "When I first read the script, I thought it was very funny. What struck me was the humour and the scale of it. There are so many fully formed characters. Over the series we laugh and cry with Molly. Relationships are developed through her and characters are seen though her eyes. That means - I hope - that viewers will identify with her. That's a wonderful responsibility to have."12

In order to play Molly as Elizabeth Gaskell wrote the character, Waddell had to suppress her modern instincts for the role. "Today's teenagers are streetwise and independent. I had to forget the knowingness of a modern-day woman and play Molly with a sense of purity. You're constantly walking a tightrope. But the director never said to me 'that's too modern', so I hope I've got it right." 13

Waddell was particularly attracted to the character because of Molly's purity, kindness and humility: "Molly is very caring about people. It's good that she takes people on trust. I like the fact that she is old-fashioned and sexually naive, too - she doesn't [care] about what she looks like. Nowadays teenagers are so sexually precocious; we've lost that sense of childish innocence... What's appealing is that Molly's so ordinary. She's completely straightforward and unpretentious. That chimes with the whole piece because 'Wives and Daughters' is a very ordinary story. There's nothing heroic about it. It's like a contemporary drama about an everyday small community filled with everyday characters."14

Waddell remarks on the transformation of her character through the course of the miniseries: "Viewers will want to follow her journey from teenager to woman, but as an actress, it's difficult to play someone growing up over four years. At the start, she's a very sheltered 17-year-old, but then her world breaks apart. Through this experience she blossoms into adulthood. She's taken some very hard knocks and learned from them. She's resolved the tension between what she is and what people want her to be. The story is about her sentimental education. Molly learns so much from Cynthia about the ways of the world. Though difficult, Cynthia shows her the importance of love." 15

On the challenges of playing Molly, Waddell adds: "Molly is challenging because she is so ordinary. I felt vulnerable playing her. Molly's intuition is to trust and be loyal and kind, things I'd call old-fashioned or na´ve." The challenge was compounded by the fact that Molly often had to react speechlessly: "I don't spend a lot of time looking in the mirror, so when I watch myself on film, I am often surprised at what my face does. Molly has to learn to combine her natural openness with a degree of social restraint. There are moments in life when you think, 'I have to hide this because I have to face other people'. It's part of becoming an adult." 16

On the lasting appeal of the story, Waddell adds: "It's about families that break apart and come back together. Anyone can understand stories about family strife. Everybody has experienced love and death. Those things happen in every family."17

On his character, Osborne Hamley, actor Tom Hollander remarks that the role appealed to him because it was so different from what he had done previously: "It's the first straight part I've played for a long time. I've done lots of comedy recently and things where I'm disguised as an upper-class twit, but this is a straight emotional romance." In particular, Hollander felt the character had real depth: "Osborne is a failure, and in playing that an actor can indulge all those sides of himself he normally has to suppress. He symbolizes the end of youth. He's someone whose childhood promise has not been fulfilled by his adult life. But what I particularly liked about Osborne is that he's not a hero. He's not formulaic or stereotypical. Unlike, say, Mr. Darcy, he's not your familiar, tall, handsome hero. The audience is not initially sure whether he's a villain or a good guy. Elizabeth Gaskell keeps us guessing, but eventually it turns out that he did what he did for love."18

In Hollander's eyes, it is this ambiguity that makes Gaskell such a universal writer: "Gaskell wasn't taken as seriously as some of her contemporaries, but her writing is very TV-friendly. She writes about people in a very human way. She shows them to be contradictory and sophisticated. Covering the gamut of human emotions, 'Wives and Daughters' is like the very best soap opera."19

The character of Cynthia immediately appealed to actress Keeley Hawes: "When I read the script I thought she was hilarious -- quite camp in a Diana Dors way and very funny. She's vampy and flirtatious, but doesn't realize it. She tries to keep everybody happy, including the men, and it gets out of control. She's not equipped to cope. She returns from France and brings with her modern ideas and fashions which are desperately exciting to the people of Hollingford. They know there's going to be a touch of glamour involved - it's a bit like Marilyn Monroe arriving in Hollingford. Cynthia is also very witty. Her antennae are out all the time, and she is able to tell so much about people from the littlest things. Rather than playing someone downtrodden, it was nice to play someone so lively. I couldn't have asked for anything better."20

On the story itself, Hawes adds: "The script has such a contemporary resonance. People will always have these problems and sadnesses. 'Wives and Daughters' contains everything that modern life can throw at you. People will relate to that. If people don't have these difficulties in their own lives, then at least they'll enjoy watching someone else suffering them!"21

Acclaimed British actress Francesca Annis remarks of her character, Mrs. Gibson: "When you hear it's a classic BBC serial, you wonder what sort of middle-aged mum Mrs. Gibson is going to be. But in fact she overturns expectations; she's very different. People ask, 'isn't she terribly manipulative?' but I don't see her like that. To me, she's just a shallow person who's able to skate over things that would be offensive to others. She is a survivor. She has the ability to twist and turn with the wind - not because she's Machiavellian, but because she's practical. People tend to forget how important it was in those days to be settled. All middle-class mothers had to be ambitious for their girls. I don't see that as offensive. After all, what else was there for them? A life as a governess?"22

Annis remarks: "She was great fun to do... I don't think we realize now what it was like to be a single mum then, you know. And, um, you had to just look out for yourself, and the only way you could create another home for yourself, if you didn't have money, was to remarry... But I thought she was great, and I suppose I'd say I don't think she's hard and manipulative -- I think actually she's just shallow!" Annis adds: "She's a very opinionated woman and when things aren't going to go her way, she bends herself around to suit the occasion. That's just like contemporary parenthood, really. You think you're in control and the it turns out that your kids are going to do what they want to do anyway. I am a parent and I brought my children up in a liberal household. So I have children who expect to be heard. In that sense, I didn't have a problem identifying with Mrs. Gibson.' "23

As for the novel itself, Annis was impressed by its continued universal appeal: "The things it's concerned about are things that we're still concerned about today -- the role of step parents and single parents. It's not the subtext in Wives And Daughters, it's completely open. So you can see why it rings bells. I believe the novel is highly recommended in family therapy. That doesn't surprise me because when I read it, it struck a lot of chords with me. I thought: 'These girls are flouncing around in a way that I wouldn't want my children to do today'. In 1810, there was an awful lot of flouncing and slamming doors... You know, this is about domestic rage and fury from a daughter -- a very independent young girl, Molly, who's been with her father... and suddenly the stepmother arrives in her house, which she considers to be her area, and how they all handle these new relationships, which is something that everyone's interested in today."24

Scottish actor Bill Paterson (Mr. Gibson), remarks that he was closer to his character, kindly doctor who cherishes his only daughter, than many he has played in the past: "I thought he was a very well-rounded human being, a nice mixture of compassion and feisty. He seemed like a person. I'm closer to Mr. Gibson than a lot of characters I've played. His sense of priorities is not a million miles away from my own. Quite early on you see his predicament. He is a widowed father striving to bring up his daughter properly -- and yet he makes the understandable mistake of marrying the wrong person. It's not a marriage from hell; it's just that Mrs. Gibson wants a type of life that doesn't suit him. Mr. Gibson is very human. Being a father, I instantly understood the warmth between the father and the daughter, and when she gets to the stage of moving away from him and entertaining suitors, you can feel the tension in him. He wants the best for her, but doesn't want to lose her. Any parent will understand that." 25

On Gaskell's writing, Paterson adds: "Her writing has the acuteness of a psychoanalyst and there's a very modern tone to it. She was also writing about a period when medical science was on the brink of many crucial breakthroughs. Within a few years of Mr. Gibson's time, they were moving into the era of anesthetics, antiseptic surgery and the whole Darwinian question of the origin of the species. Mr. Gibson was interested in all these developments. It was a fascinating time - and mirrors our own. We're so interested now in the manipulation of science and genetic engineering. Mr. Gibson and Molly get caught up in the natural sciences - which makes them very modern." 26

Regarding Molly, screenwriter Andrew Davies remarks: "I think she's just utterly lovable, really. It's a pretty close run between her and Elizabeth Bennet in 'Pride and Prejudice' for the most appealing heroine in English literature. I'm the father of a daughter, and Molly brought out those feelings in me. You feel very protective towards her, even though she can stick up for herself. She's not the prettiest girl in the story, and you sympathize with her when all these chaps look past her and see Cynthia and immediately stop paying her any attention."27

As for the worldly Cynthia and Mr. Preston, Davies tried to make both characters multi-dimensional: "[Molly and Cynthia] are complete opposites, but they actually find they like each other very much. I'm sure that if Cynthia was in a George Eliot novel, she'd get no sympathy at all, because George Eliot was always down on these very attractive, flighty, selfish, pretty girls who get all the men, whereas Gaskell makes Cynthia very real and three-dimensional. We can see her problems and get to love her, just as Molly does. Gaskell does a similar thing with the land agent Preston. In a lot of people's novels, he'd be a rather two-dimensional villain, whereas in this one we can see what has made him like this and how his suffering is really genuine."28

As for the complex Osborne, Davies says: "He was the character who gave me the most problem with the script, because when I read the book, I thought... 'This is the first gay character in 19th-century literature!' Then I thought: 'No, it couldn't be.' You get the feeling when Osborne comes on that the revelation about him is going to be that he's gay, because in the book he really is quite effeminate in his manner. He seems to be a caricature of a gay character. He's always talking about the opera, he's very good with older ladies, he has a very close relationship with his mother, he can't stand his father. The secret French wife and the child seemed a bit unlikely to me, and so I tried to make him more Keatsian - not a drooping spirit, but a passionate, poetic character, who just had the bad luck to have a growing and fatal illness."29

On the lasting appeal of Wives and Daughters, Davies concludes: "It's a situation that can appeal to audiences today because, in a way, it's about second families, isn't it? In the book, of course, you've got second families because of people dying young. Nowadays, it's because of divorce and remarriage. But the problems are the same, aren't they?"30

Applause, Awards and the Aftermath

After finishing the production, Sue Birtwistle remarks: "It [was] lovingly carried through. Nick [Renton, series director] and I [worked] on it a year now, and we're still enjoying working together, even in dark rooms every day, dubbing and so on. We are tired, I have to say. Tired but happy. We've enjoyed it." 31

By contrast, Andrew Davies (who tends to stay away from both filming and post-production and for the first time watched an episode before its airing) was "delighted" with the end result: "The anxiety is that you have to do justice to the book. You have to do it slowly. I tried to start writing it in 50-minute episodes. But it didn't work, because, in getting all the plot in, you were losing the things that make the book what it is. So we decided to gamble on it, and develop it gradually. Occasionally, I get these urges to direct it myself, out of self-defense or something. But then I remind myself how it always rains, and so on. And I'm quite impatient - I'd be inclined to say after the first take, 'Well that was quite good, wasn't it?' " 32

The first airing of "Wives and Daughters" in London went head to head with the debut of a new television adaptation of "Oliver Twist," in what was called "a battle of the costume blockbusters." Producer Sue Birtwistle recalls the concern over its ratings, given the downturn in rating for period dramas since the glory days of "Pride and Prejudice": "Mind you, it took me ten years to sell 'Pride and Prejudice', because there was 'no appetite' for classic drama. And I kept saying, I think there is, let me do it, let's see. And it was successful - because there will always be an appetite for a good story well told. [And] Jane Austen is big box-office...I [was] very aware that [Elizabeth Gaskell] is not as well-known as Jane Austen. I was told Pride and Prejudice was the best-selling novel in the English language in the world. You can't do much better than that. I just hop[ed] that even if we [said], 'Some of the people who did 'Pride and Prejudice' are doing this', we [would] get people to give us a go. I hope[d] they'[d] tune in to episode one and stick with it." 33

When "Wives and Daughters" first aired on British television in 1999, critics hailed it as rivaling the well-acclaimed "Pride and Prejudice," noting that "this series has a serious claim to be crowned the best costume drama of the decade." Francesca Annis was nominated for a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of an Emmy Award) for her role as Mrs. Gibson, and Michael Gambon won a BAFTA for his role as Squire Hamley. "Wives and Daughters" also won three BAFTA awards for best design, best make-up and hair, and best photography and lighting.

Actress Justine Waddell was surprised by the amount of fan mail she received after the production aired in England: "Particularly from teen-agers -- especially young women -- about how much they loved Molly. Or people from a broken family who said that they had never seen a costume drama but really understood the whole stepmother situation." 34

Interestingly enough, English critics initially complained that Andrew Davies' script seemed to modern, as Davies recalls: "One thing that's nice about this novel is that Gaskell writes beautiful dialogue that differentiates the characters to a large extent. It was interesting that in England when this film came out a couple of critics complained that the dialogue sounded too modern. They quoted phrases that in fact I'd copied straight out of the book!" 35

Film Stills

Publicity Poses

Behind the Scenes and Candid Photos

Premiere and Awards Photos

Desktop Wallpapers

Footnotes: 1. Mark Monahan, "Gambling on a Classic with No End," The Telegraphy (Issue No. 1639, November 20, 1999). 2. "Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Francecsa Annis, Keeley Hawes, Justine Waddell and Iain Glen Star in Wives and Daughters," BBC Publicity (March 1999) (hereinafter "BBC Publicity"). 3. Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre: Wives and Daughters (hereinafter "Masterpiece Theatre"). 4. BBC Publicity, supra. 5. Masterpiece Theatre, supra. 6. Id. 7. Monahan, supra. 8. Masterpiece Theatre, supra. 9. Id. 10. Unknown source; citation pending. 11. Unknown source; citation pending. 12. Unknown source; citation pending. 13. Masterpiece Theatre, supra. 14. Id. 15. Unknown source; citation pending. 16. Unknown source; citation pending. 17. Masterpiece Theatre, supra. 18. Id. 19. Id. 20. Id. 21. Id. 22. Id. 23. Id. 24. Id. 25. Id. 26. Id. 27. Id. 28. Id. 29. Id. 30. Id. 31. Id. 32. Id. 33. Id. 34. Unknown source; citation pending. 35. Unknown source; citation pending.