Masterpiece Theatre: Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Pride and Prejudice (1980); director, Cyril Coke (5 episodes); adapted by Fay Weldon from the novel by Jane Austen; with Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet, David Rintoul as Darcy, Sabina Franklyn as Jane Bennet,  Osmond Bullock as Bingley.  A BBC production.

This version aired on television fifteen years before the renowned Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle adaptation of Jane Austen’s famous book. As such, it shows its age, being rather studio-bound and stiff in its construction.

However, Elizabeth Garvie does come across as closer to Austen’s conception of Lizzie Bennet than either Jennifer Ehle or Greer Garson in the Hollywood film.

Sabina Franklyn is particularly good as Jane, not a mouse but just a genuinely nice person, while Clare Higgins (Kitty), Tessa Peake-Jones (Mary), and Natalie Ogle (Lydia) are watchable as the remaining Bennet sisters.

Of particular interest though is David Rintoul’s Darcy. Of a very different stamp to the brooding landowner of the 1995 version, he gives an extremely interesting portrayal, just as attractive in its way, and again, closer to the character depicted in the book. Others of note in the cast are Moray Watson as Mr Bennet, and Judy Parfitt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

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Masterpiece Theatre: Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), directed by Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong.

Starring Siân Phillips as Emmeline Pankhurst, Patricia Quinn as Christabel Pankhurst, Angela Down as Sylvia Pankhurst, Georgia Brown as Annie Kenney, Sheila Allen as Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, Maureen Pryor as Ethel Smyth, Judy Parfitt as Constance Lytton, and Fulton Mackay as Keir Hardie.

6x episodes, written by Ken Taylor and Midge Mackenzie.

This series, based on the birth and progress of the suffragette movement, has been sadly unavailable on commercial video for years and only one episode, the one focusing on Annie Kenney, has been broadcast in the past fifteen years.

It’s a sad fate for a series which is both celebratory and controversial about issues such as force-feeding, the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby, and the in-fighting between the Pankhurst family themselves. The actress-singer Georgia Brown came up with the idea and also sings the theme, Ethel Smyth’s stirring anthem ‘March of the Women’. Her Annie Kenney – the working class mill-girl whose blunt speaking balances the cultured speeches of Christabel Pankhurst and her call to arms.

Covering the whole period of conflict and change, this production from Verity Lambert retains the power to engage a viewer, to shock and even at times amuse, and to put across the facts (as they were understood in the 1970s) of this life-changing era of the women’s movement.

Great performances across the board, but a nod must go to Parfitt who only features in one episode but who is deeply convincing as the aristocratic invalid who barely survives her treatment in prison. Also good is Phillips as the redoubtable Mrs Pankhurst, who starts off a reasonable person and almost becomes a heartless monster in search of personal glory at the expense of her daughter Sylvia and friends the Pethick-Lawrences.

Masterpiece Theatre project: The First Churchills

The First Churchills (1969), produced by Donald Wilson.

Starring John Neville as John Churchill Duke of Marlborough, Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill, Margaret Tyzack as Queen Anne, James Villiers as Charles II, James Kerry as James Duke of Monmouth, and Jill Balcon as Abigail Hill.

12x episodes, written by Donald Wilson, based on the book by Winston Churchill.

The first production to air on Masterpiece Theatre, this programme was somewhat unique in not being a dramatization of a classic novel.  It was not highly regarded by series presenter Alistair Cooke, who nevertheless introduced it to American audiences on the strength of Susan Hampshire’s performance (she was familiar to the target audience from her appearance as Fleur in The Forsyte Saga).

Viewed now the series does drag in places, but remains a reasonable depiction of a time in history which perhaps does not have the same romance and excitement as the Tudors.  It does help if you have some prior knowledge of the period so you can follow who the various characters are, for example knowing of Sarah’s friendship with Anne and their correspondence as ‘Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley’ makes sense of the Churchills’ eventual fall from favour as Sarah loses her place as favourite to her poor relation, Abigail Hill, who is presented her as something of a schemer against her powerful cousin.

The best thing about this series for me, though, isn’t in Hampshire’s performance, good though it is, but in a rare television appearance by John Neville, one of gravitas and dignity against the more emotional centre of his ambitious wife.  There are a few too many period wigs, and photographed backdrops in lieu of expensive location filming, but this series has a certain charm if you make allowances for the time it was made.

Masterpiece Theatre project: Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm (1968), directed by Peter Hammond.

Starring Fay Compton as Aunt Ada Doom, Rosalie Crutchley as Judith Starkadder, Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder, Brian Blessed as Reuben Starkadder, Peter Egan as Seth Starkadder and Sarah Badel as Flora Poste.

3x episodes, written by David Turner, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons.

Stella Gibbons’ 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm parodied popular rural novels by the likes of Mary Webb, and as such presents a broad comic vista with highly dramatized characters.  The Starkadder family are distant relations of the recently orphaned Flora Poste, and they are full of dark secrets, neuroses, and emotional issues, which Flora determines to sort out, bringing her relations into the modern world.

As a TV production, this version succeeds as a comedy more than the John Schlesinger-directed version almost thirty years later, mainly due to the ripe and beautifully judged characterisation of God-fearing Amos by Alastair Sim.  balanced by Badel’s unassuming but clever Flora, who charms her cousins and brings a breath of fresh air to the farm.  At three episodes, it is enough to give time to the story and give even the smaller roles (including a young Peter Egan as a primitive Seth) a chance to make an impact.

Performances are generally strong, from the world-weary Crutchley through to the basic machismo of Blessed.  This production is forty-five years old but still feels fresh and relevant, funny and watchable.