Masterpiece Theatre project: Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette (1971), directed by Gareth Davies.

Starring Margaret Tyzack as Bette, Thorley Walters as Baron Hulot, Ursula Howells as Adeline, Colin Baker as Steinbock, Helen Mirren as Valerie, and Esmond Knight as Marshal Hulot.

5x episodes, written by Ray Lawler, from the novel by Honore de Balzac.

This drama firmly puts the formidable acting talent of the late Margaret Tyzack centre stage, as the poor relation put upon by her family to such an extent that she vows to destroy them all once a young artist she saves from attempted suicide and lends money to decides to marry her much prettier and younger relation.  Into this plot she draws Valerie, a woman who sells herself for pleasure, and her family follow her schemes and suggestions, oblivious to her true purpose.  But will Bette really win in the end?

As with other studio bound dramas of the 1970s, this doesn’t have a large budget and costumes and sets could be better – but the calibre of the cast and the quality of the script, which sticks fairly closely to the cynicism of the original novel, makes it a must-see.  If there are any weaknesses at all they can be laid firmly at the door of the original author, whose melodramatic excesses lead to one or two scenes here which would be comical in less skilled hands.

I would also like to mention the theme music and opening sequence, which shows Bette embroidering the family crest, which is the last thing we shall see when the drama closes after five episodes packed with incident and intrigue.