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Exclusive: the stars of ITV1's Jane Austen season talk to RT
Sally Hawkins as Anne Eliot in Persuasion
Sally Hawkins as Anne Eliot in Persuasion (1 April, ITV1)

So what was it like for Sally Hawkins to meet her other young Jane Austen heroines? Did they compare and contrast tales from the 19th century? Discuss the minutiae of punctilios and protocol?

"We didn't really compare and contrast. There wasn't much time - we were all much more worried about whether our feet were in shot. That was the focus."

The other focus has been flapjacks - "Marks and Spencer's flapjacks!" We tell Sally that these are the real trappings of celebrity. Forget the white doves in the dressing room and the entourage. Famous people get flapjack mini-bites by the bucketload.

And, as Anne Eliot in Persuasion, Sally is about to be famous. Unlike Billie, she is a Jane Austen convert, but like Billie, she recognises that life back then wasn't all ballroom dancing and heaving embonpoint.

"A lot of people had to marry for money and for status and social acceptability and if you didn't marry you were looked on at some kind of freak - especially at the age of 27, which is how old Anne is." And of course there's the rib-crushing attire. "It's quite nice to dip in and out of life back then, but wearing all those corsets…and the undergarments!"

It would be a dereliction of RT's journalistic duty not to ask about the undergarments.

"Oh, God, what do I know about undergarments? Er, there's a lot of them. Layer upon layer. Andrea Galer, who's the costume designer, she's a perfectionist. You might get a glimpse of things and skirts lift and stockings get shown, she thinks, so everything has to be just as it was. It helps to get in to character really." Which gives a whole new meaning to method.

Where Billie Piper mugged up on books of contemporary etiquette, Sally went straight to the source. "I knew Jane Austen's work vaguely, but for this I read her letters and read up about her. It was an excuse to do that. I think she's incredible. There's a whole other language and it's the language of the subtext - all these codes that you have to unlock with the etiquette of the day. She paints that kind of picture very well. It's all about codes and looks and gestures.

"And yet underneath all that there's fire, there's passion. We use code now. That's why it relates to our world. We don't change at all - there are codes in language now, people rarely say what they feel or think. Unless they're drunk."
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (25 March, ITV1)

The quietest, and the youngest-looking of the three Austenettes, Felicity Jones - yes, it's Emma Grundy, Archers fans! - is perfectly cast as the naive, Gothic novel devouring socialite-to-be Catherine Morland.

"Catherine is a bit more of a country bumpkin than everyone else," says Felicity. "Everyone else is very well-to-do and has been going to balls for years, whereas she's been in the country rolling around with pigs and so on!"

Felicity, of course, has not been going to balls for years either, and found the Strictly Come Austen sessions the most taxing. "We all had to learn the dances from scratch for the ball scenes, so we spent about a week going through them over and over again. But what happens is as soon as you put the dialogue in, the dancing just goes to pot! So it's all about putting the movement and the dialogue together and remembering what your character is supposed to be thinking at the same time - that's quite tricky!

"We had an excellent dance teacher and she was constantly reminding us to relax into it and remember that your character has been doing this for years and years and years. The characters will have learnt to dance at such an early age that they are completely fluid by this age - the novelty for us with three weeks of dancing is not quite the same!"

Another dyed-in-the-wool Austen fan - she read English at Wadham College, Oxford before graduating last year - Felicity's sees a certain modernity beneath the empire-line dresses and the curtsies.

"People think Austen is a lot more romantic and straightforward than she actually is. She is quite practical about love and relationships - she's very measured about who people should marry. What's quite interesting with Henry Tilney is that he doesn't necessarily fall madly in love with Catherine straight away. It's a very gradual development, and it's her enthusiasm for him that prompts him to return her affections. It's very subtle how she draws her characters, which is what I like.

"The sex in Austen is not explicit, but it is there. She is a very passionate writer. She says about Catherine that her love of life is what makes her so attractive. I think Austen is a fan of people being passionate - she's not Victorian in any way."

Benji Wilson

Read more about the Jane Austen season in the new issue of Radio Times
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