“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel.

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

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I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

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“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

This adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel turned out to be the first of the old Jane Austen television adaptations that the BBC aired during the 1970s and 80s. Produced and directed by Howard Baker, and adapted by Julian Mitchell; this two-part miniseries starred Ann Firbanks and Bryan Marshall.

As many fans of Austen’s novel would know, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet, who finds herself reunited with her former finance, a Naval officer of lesser birth named Frederick Wentworth. Eight years before the beginning of the story, Anne’s godmother, Lady Russell, had persuaded her to reject Wentworth’s marriage proposal, citing the Naval officer’s lack of family connections and fortune. She reunites with Wentworth, during a prolonged family visit to her younger sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Charles Musgrove. And the Naval officer has managed to acquire a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. Anne is forced to watch Wentworth woo Mary’s sister-in-law, Louisa Musgrove, while he ignores his earlier attraction to her.

Many diehard Austen fans have expressed the opinion that this adaptation of her last novel has a running time that allows for the characters to be expressed with more depth than they were in the 1995 and 2007 versions. I must admit that the miniseries’ running time of 210 minutes allowed a greater depth into Austen’s plot than the two later movies. Yet, despite the longer running time, ”PERSUASION” managed to be only a little more faithful than the other two versions. One of the plotlines that Mitchell failed to include featured the injury suffered by one of Charles Musgrove’s sons, following a fall from the tree. It was this injury that delayed Anne’s reunion with Wentworth near the beginning of the story. Fortunately, the changes or deletions that Mitchell made in his script did not bother me one whit. Especially since ”PERSUASION” turned out to be a pretty solid adaptation.

However, there were times when Mitchell was too faithful to Austen’s novel. I still have nightmares over the second scene between Anne and her old school friend, Mrs. Smith; in which the latter finally revealed the true nature of Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. That particular scene seemed to take forever. And I never understood Anne’s outrage over William’s comments about Sir Walter and Elizabeth in his old letters to Mrs. Smith’s husband. He had only expressed what Anne also felt about her father and older sister. And once again, an adaptation of ”Persuasion” failed to correct the problem surrounding the William Elliot character – namely his attempt to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Sir Walter from marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, or any other women . . . and guarantee his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy. As I had stated in my reviews of the two other ”PERSUASION” movies, William’s efforts struck me as irreverent, since there was no way he could have full control over Sir Walter’s love life. Why was it necessary to show William sneaking away with Mrs. Clay in order to elope with her? Both were grown adults who had been previously married. They were not married or engaged to anyone else. I found their clandestine behavior unnecessary. And why on earth did Mitchell include Sir Walter spouting the names and birthdates of himself and his offspring in the script’s opening scene? I do not think so. In fact, this scene merely dragged the miniseries from the outset.

The production values for ”PERSUASION” struck me as top-rate . . . to a certain extent. I have to commend Peter Phillips for his colorful production designs and Mark Hall for the miniseries’ art work. ”PERSUASION” permeated with rich colors that I found eye catching. However, I have some qualms about Esther Dean’s costumes designs. How can I put it? I found some of the costumes rather garish. And the photography for the exterior scenes struck me as . . . hmmm, unimpressive. Dull. Flat. And I had some problems with the hairstyle for the leading lady, Ann Firbank. Her hairdo seemed like a uneasy mixture of an attempt at a Regency hairstyle and an early 1970s beehive. Think I am kidding? Take a gander:

My opinion of the cast is pretty mixed. There were performances that I found impressive. Marian Spencer gave a complex, yet intelligent portrayal of Anne Elliot’s godmother and mentor, Lady Russell. I was also impressed by Valerie Gearon’s subtle performance as Anne’s vain older sister, Elizabeth Elliot. And both Richard Vernon and Rowland Davies gave colorful performances as Admiral Croft and Charles Musgrove, respectively. On the other hand, Basil Dignam got on my last nerve as the vain Sir Walter Elliot. There was nothing really wrong with his performance, but many of his scenes dragged the miniseries, due to the number of unnecessary dialogue over topics that had very little to do with the main storyline. Quite frankly, a great deal of Sir Walter’s dialogue bore me senseless.

And what about the story’s two leads? Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall gave very competent performances as the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. They competently expressed their characters’ intelligence and emotions. They also made the eventual reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth very believable. Unfortunately, Firbank and Marshall lacked the strong chemistry that Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds possessed in the 1995 adaptation; or the strong chemistry that Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones had in the 2007 film. I never got the feeling that Firbank’s Anne and Marshall’s Wentworth were struggling to contain their emotions toward each other in the first half of the miniseries. Every now and then, Firbank utilized sad and pensive expressions, reminding me of Evangeline Lilly’s early performances on ABC’s ”LOST”. And Marshall’s Wentworth seemed too friendly with the Musgrove sisters and polite toward Anne to hint any sense of remaining passion toward her. It was not until their encounter with William Elliot at Lyme Regis that I could detect any hint – at least on Wentworth’s part – of emotion toward Anne. And it was only from this point onward, in which Firbank and Marshall finally conveyed a strong screen chemistry.

In the end, I have to admit that this adaptation of ”PERSUASION” struck me as entertaining. I cannot deny it. Despite being the most faithful of the three known adaptations, I feel that it was probably more flawed than the later two versions. Screenwriter Julian Mitchell and director Howard Baker’s close adherence to Austen’s novel did not really help it in the long run. In doing so, the miniseries adapted some of the faults that could be found in the novel. And the miniseries’ close adaptation also dragged its pacing needlessly. But the solid performances by the cast, led by Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall; along with the colorful production designs and the story’s intelligence allowed me to enjoy it in the end.

Adapting “WARLEGGAN”

 

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ADAPTING “WARLEGGAN”

Do many fans of the current adaptation of Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” saga have an unnatural hatred of the character known as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan?  Or do they merely dislike her?  Did this “dislike” lead producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC to sanction a major change in the relationship between Elizabeth and the saga’s protagonist, Ross Poldark during the series’ Season Two?  A change that I personally found disturbing?  Or was it something else?

Last summer, I encountered rumors that “POLDARK” producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC had decided to make a major change to the series’s adaptation of the 1953 novel, “Warleggan” – a change that eventually reflected in Episode Eight (Episode Seven in the U.S.) of the series’ second season.  Horsfield and the BBC decided to deliberately change the nature of an encounter between Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark in an effort to preserve Ross’ “heroic” image.  Nearly a month after learning this decision, I learned that both leading man Aidan Turner and co-star Heida Reed (who portrays Elizabeth Poldark) had met with Horsfield.  Turner claimed, along with Horsfield and Graham’s son, Andrew Graham that the May 9, 1793 encounter between Ross and Elizabeth had been consensual sex and not rape, when the protagonist appeared at his cousin-in-law’s home (the Trenwith estate) to convince her not to marry his on-going nemesis, banker George Warleggan. Judging from what I had read in the novel, I find this opinion hard to accept:

‘I can’t help this either.’ He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough round to avoid him.

 When he lifted his head, her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it before, and he found pleasure in it.

 ‘This is – contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself … To insult me when – when I have no one …

 ‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I don’t like it! I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’

 ‘I’d be surprised if you believed me if I gave it you! You called me a liar! Well, at least I do not go back on my promises! I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week-‘

 He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm …

 She suddenly found herself for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me -like a slut-‘

 ‘It’s time you were so treated-‘

 ‘Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful — horrible! If George –‘

 ‘Shall you marry him?’

 ‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross … Please .. .’

 ‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’

 ‘Tomorrow-‘

 ‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’

‘Ross, you can’t intend … Stop! Stop, I tell you.’

 But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.

This is how Graham had ended both the chapter and the scene . . . with Ross forcing Elizabeth on her bed … against her will.  It did not end with any hint that they were about to embark upon consensual sex.

Many fans of the series, especially young female fans had reacted with joy over the news.  What they had failed to realize was that in making this change, Horsfield threatened to undermine the lesson of Ross and Elizabeth’s story arc and what it really meant.  Winston Graham – a male writer – had the balls to show that even the “heroic” Ross Poldark was capable of a monstrous act. He had the courage to reveal that Ross was not some romance novel hero, but a complex and ambiguous man, capable of not only decent acts, but monstrous ones as well.  Like any other human being on the face of this Earth.  More importantly, his assault of Elizabeth revealed the consequences that rape victims tend to pay in a patriarchal society – past or present – in the novels that followed.  It seemed Debbie Horsfield and the BBC were only willing to portray Ross as an adulterer.  Is it possible they believed it would be easier for viewers to accept Ross simply as an adulterer, instead of an adulterer/rapist?  Some individuals, including Turner, claimed that Ross was incapable of rape.  Bullshit! Although a fictional character, Ross Poldark is also a human being.  And humans are basically capable of anything.  Hell, Agatha Christie had the good sense to realize this.  Why is it that so many other humans are incapable of doing the same?

The moment I had learned that she had decided to turn Ross’ rape into an act of consensual sex between him and Elizabeth, I suspected that fans would end up slut shaming the latter.  I suspected that even though many fans would be “disappointed” in Ross, they would eventually forgive him.  However, I also suspected that these same fans would end up branding Elizabeth as a whore until the end of this series.  It is soooo typical of this sexist society.  The woman is always to blame.  Even in the eyes of other women.

So, what actually happened between Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC’s recent adaptation of “Warleggan”?  In Episode 8 (Episode 7 in the U.S.), Ross returned home to Nampara, his personal estate, and discovered a letter from Elizabeth in which she announced her engagement to George Warleggan.  Despite his wife Demelza’s protests, Ross decided to go to Trenwith and try to convince or perhaps coerce Elizabeth into breaking the engagement.  He showed up at Trenwith, barged into both the house and Elizabeth’s bedroom.  An argument commenced between the two in which Ross tried to shame Elizabeth into breaking the engagement.  She refused to comply, making it clear that her actions stemmed from saving her immediate family at Trenwith from further financial problems and ensuring her son (and Ross’ cousin) Geoffrey Charles’ future.

And … what happened next?  Ross began to force himself upon Elizabeth.  She tried to put up a fight, while insisting that he leave.  He eventually forced her on the bed.  And just as he was about to rape her, Elizabeth capitulated at the last minute. This last moment of consent was Horsfield and the BBC’s way of stating that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was basically consensual sex.  Can you believe it?  Considering the manner in which Elizabeth tried and failed to fight off Ross before she “consented”, the entire scene might as well have been rape. After all, Elizabeth fought Ross until he had her pinned on the bed. If she had not “consented”, chances are he would have raped her anyway. Worse, the culmination of the entire scene projected the negative image of the “rape fantasy”.  I am sure that many of you know what I mean.  When a woman or a man says “no”, he or she really means “yes”.

You may be wondering why I would include a potential male victim in this scenario.  Simple … many people harbor the illusion that men do not mind being the victim of a woman’s rape.  Also, I saw this same scenario play out in the “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Six episode called (6.11) “Gone”.  In this episode, the series’ protagonist had been rendered invisible by some ray gun invented by a trio of geeky scientists.  Using her invisibility to indulge in her own desires, Buffy decided to pay a call to chipped vampire Spike (with whom she had begun an affair) at his crypt.  She barged into the latter, shoved a frightened Spike against the wall and started to rip off his clothes.  He consented to sex at the last minute when an uncontrolled giggle revealed Buffy’s identity.  What made this scene rather sickening to watch was that it was written as a comedic moment.  I have the oddest feeling that producer Debbie Horsfield may have seen this particular episode and decided to write her own version of the situation in order to spare Ross Poldark from being labeled a rapist.

Someone had pointed out that the 1975 adaptation produced by Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn had adapted this sequence with more honesty.  After a recent viewing of this series, I am afraid that I cannot agree.  What happened?  Well … one scene featured a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey, in which she made it clear that her reason for marrying George Warleggan was for money and more social clout.  To make matters worse, the scene had Verity instructing Elizabeth to explain to Ross that the latter was considering the family’s salvation from a future filled with poverty and Geoffrey Charles’ future. But Elizabeth made it clear – in a rather bitchy and unsympathetic manner conveyed by actress Jill Townsend – that her reasons for George was all about a new life for her – with a wealthy husband.  And she set out to include this in her letter to Ross.  Even worse, the screenwriter had drastically changed Elizabeth’s personality once the series had commenced upon adapting “Warleggan” in Episode Thirteen.  She suddenly began behaving as “The Bitch of the Century”.

When Ross had finally confronted her in Episode Fifteen, Elizabeth still insisted that a marriage to George was a way for her to have a new life.  What I found distasteful about the whole thing is that this was NOT Elizabeth’s true reason for marrying George Warleggan in the 1953 novel.  She truly made the decision to marry George in order to spare her family – especially Geoffrey Charles – a long future trapped in poverty, as was conveyed in the 2016 series.  But I ended up acquiring the ugly feeling that Barry, Coburn and screenwriter Jack Russell had decided to change Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George in order to justify Ross’ rape of her.

And yes … Ross did rape Elizabeth in the 1975 series.  Unlike the 2016 version, there was no last minute consent on Elizabeth’s part.  But I found the entire scene rather rushed. Once Ross and Elizabeth barely had time to discuss or argue over the matter, the former quickly tackled the latter to the bed and began to rape her, as the scene faded to black.  However, both versions set out to regain Ross’ reputation with the viewers by the end of their respective adaptations of “Warleggan”.  How did they achieve this?  Screenwriter Jack Russell included a scene in the last episode of the 1975 series in which George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith land from the tenants, forcing them to transform from small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborers. This action led to a riot in which the former tenant farmers stormed the Trenwith manor house and burn it to the ground. During the riot, Ross and Demelza arrived to save the recently married Elizabeth and George from mob violence. This also gave the series’ producers and Russell to have Elizabeth ask Ross why he had decided to save George from the mob.  What the hell?  The enclosures happened in the novel.  But not the riot. What was the purpose of this?  To give Ross an opportunity to give Elizabeth a “you are beneath me” glare?

Debbie Horsfield decided to resort to a similar scenario in the 2016 version.  However, before she could subject television audiences to this idiocy, she included a scene in which an angry Demelza Poldark got a chance to slut shame Elizabeth during an encounter between the pair on a deserted road.  This scene, by the way, never happened in the novel. And quite frankly, I never understood Horsfield’s purpose by including this scene.  What did she expect from the audience?  Viewers pumping their fists in the air while crying, “Demelza, you go girl?”  Perhaps there were fans that actually did this or something similar. I did not.  In fact, I merely shook my head in disbelief. Pardon me, but I found it difficult to cheer on Demelza’s behalf, when I just recently watched her husband force himself on Elizabeth.  Unlike the 1975 version, the Trenwith riot sequence did not end with the house burned to the ground.  Instead, it ended with Nampara servant Jud Paynter, whipping up a mob to march on Trenwith and Ross preventing Demelza (who had gone to Trenwith to warn Elizabeth and George about the impending riot) from being shot by one of the rioters. The scene even included Ross riding through the crowd on a horse and sweeping Demelza up onto the saddle.  It seemed like a scene straight from a Harlequin Romance novel.  And I had to struggle to force down the bile that threatened to rise up my throat.

From the moment Elizabeth Poldark had decided to inform Ross of her upcoming marriage to George Warleggan to the latter’s confrontation with Ross over the Trenwith enclosures, the adaptations of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel for both the 1975 and 2016 series … well, for me they have been major disappointments.  Were producers Morris Barry, Anthony Coburn and Debbie Horsfield unwilling to allow television audiences to face Ross’ violent act against his soon-to-be former cousin-in-law?  Was that why all three had insisted upon changing the circumstances that surrounded Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter on that May 1793 night? Or were they pressured by the BBC to make these changes, who may have feared that television audiences could not openly face or accept Ross as a rapist?  Or perhaps the three producers, along with the BBC, knew that many viewers could accept Ross as an adulterer, but not as a rapist?  Who knows?  I know one thing.  I hope and pray that one day, some television producer would be able to adapt “Warleggan” without resorting to excessive changes.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production.

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you, “MIDDLEMARCH”is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching“MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. Davies’ screenplay did an excellent job in balancing Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon and the early period of Lydgate and Rosamond’s relationship in the first three episodes. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I did found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. And Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order without allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

The Charlotte

Here is some information and an old recipe for a dessert dish known as the Charlotte:

THE CHARLOTTE

I first heard about the Charlotte or one of its variations in the 1992 movie, “HOWARD’S END”. One of the supporting characters seemed to have a real enthusiasm for the dessert being served to him by his family’s maid. I have never forgotten that particular scene. And when I came across some information on the Charlotte, I found myself inspired to post an article about it.

The Charlotee is a type of dessert that can be served hot or cold and was believed to be created in the late 18th century. It can also be known as an ‘ice-box cake’. Bread, sponge cake or biscuits/cookies are used to line a mould, which is then filled with a fruit puree or custard. It can also be made using layers of breadcrumbs. Classically, stale bread dipped in butter was used as the lining, but sponge cake or sponge fingers may be used today. The filling may be covered with a thin layer of similarly flavoured gelatin.

Many different varieties have developed. Most Charlottes are served cool, so they are more common in warmer seasons. Fruit Charlottes usually combine a fruit puree or preserve with a custard filling or whipped cream. Some flavors include strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, and banana. Other types do not include fruit but use a custard or bavarian cream. A citrus curd is a more contemporary choice.

There is a lot of doubt surrounding the origins of the name charlotte. Despite the fact that Charlottes are served across Europe, one etymology suggests it is a corruption of the Old English word charlyt meaning “a dish of custard.” Meat dishes that were known as charlets were popular in the 15th century. Some claim that the charlotte had its origin in the dessert, Charlotte Russe, which was invented by the French chef Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1833). Apparently, he named it in honor of Charlotte of Prussia, the sister of his Russian employer Czar Alexander I (russe being the French word for “Russian”). Other historians say that this sweet dish originated with the Apple Charlotte, which took its name from Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III – patron of apple growers in Britain.

The various types of Charlotee desserts include:

*Charlotte Russe – a cake is which the mold is lined with sponge fingers (Ladyfingers) and filled with a custard. It is served cold with whipped cream.

*Apple Charlotte – a golden-crusted dessert made by baking a thick apple compote in a mold lined with buttered bread. This dessert was originally created as a way to use leftover or stale bread.

*Chocolate Charlotte – a cake that uses chocolate mousse within its layers

*Charlotte Malakoff – a cake with a lining of ladyfingers and a center filling of a soufflé mixture of cream, butter, sugar, a liqueur, chopped almonds, and whipped cream. It is decorated with strawberries.

*Cold charlottes – made in a ladyfinger-lined mold and filled with a Bavarian cream. For frozen charlottes, a frozen soufflé or mousse replaces the Bavarian cream.

Here is an old American recipe for Apple Charlotte:

“Cut as many very thin slices of white bread as will cover the bottom and line the sides of a baking dish, but first rub it thick with butter. Put apples, in thin slices, into the dish, in layers, till full, stewing sugar between and bits of butter. In the mean time, soak as many thin slices of bread as will cover the whole, in warm milk, over which lay a plate, and a weight to keep the bread close on the apples. Bake slowly three hours. To a middling-sized dish use a half pound of butter in the whole.” – “A New System of Domestic Cookery, Formed Upon Principles of Economy, and Adapted to the Use of Private Families” by Maria Rundell, 1807

Here is a more modern recipe for the same dish:

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter 1 (1 pound) loaf white bread, crusts trimmed 8 apples – peeled, cored and chopped 1/3 cup white sugar 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons butter, cubed nonstick cooking spray.

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Grease a 9×5 inch bread pan with 1 tablespoon butter. Press bread slices onto the bottom and sides of pan, making sure there are no gaps.

In a large bowl, combine apples, sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons cubed butter. Place apple mixture in bread lined pan. Cover top with bread slices, and coat with nonstick cooking spray. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in pan, then invert onto serving dish. – allrecipes.com

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1971) Review

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“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1971) Review

For some reason, I still find it hard to believe that until recently, very few people were aware that the first adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, dated as far back as 1971. After all, people have been aware of other Austen adaptations during this same period or earlier. Even the Wikipedia site fails to mention it, except in connection with one of the cast members. What was about this four-part miniseries that eluded so many Austen fans?

In “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, a wealthy landowner named Mr. Dashwood dies, leaving his two daughters and second wife at the mercy of his son by his first marriage, thanks to the rules of inheritance. When the son fails to financially help his sisters and stepmother, the trio are forced to live at a meager cottage, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin. The miniseries follows the love lives of the sisters, while they deal with their new penniless status.

I could have went into greater detail about Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. But what would have been the point? Austen’s novel and the other adaptations have made both their story and characters well known to fans. Everyone knows that the Dashwood sisters’ penniless state have made them undesirable as potential mates among the English upper-class. And many know that Elinor Dashwood is the older and more sensible sister, who kept her emotions suppressed behind a facade of stoic behavior. They also know that Marianne is the younger sisters, whose romantic enthusiasm led to emotional excesses and irrational behavior. Was there something unique about this adaptation of Austen’s novel? Hmmm. Other than it was probably the first version of the 1811 novel and the first of four versions to exclude the character of the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret.

Overall, I believe that “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” turned out to be an entertaining and well-paced television miniseries. But it was not perfect. One, I felt that screenwriter Denis Constanduros made a few missteps in his adaptation. I wish that Constanduros had included a scene featuring John Dashwood’s last conversation with his dying father. I felt that his eventually betrayal of his promise, due to his wife’s capriciousness would have possessed more bite. I also felt that Constanduros could have included more scenes featuring Marianne and John Willoughy’s courtship. The period between their first meeting and Willoughby’s decision to end their romance seemed to go by in a flash. It happened too soon for me to understand Marianne’s grief over his rejection of her. Although there were a good deal of exterior shots of the English countryside, I wish there had been more exterior shots of early 19th century London, during the sisters’ trip. The London sequences made the miniseries feel more like a filmed play. And why on earth did Constanduros allowed Elinor to pay a visit to Edward Ferrars’ London rooms alone? What was he thinking? He should have allowed Elinor to summon Edward to Mrs. Jennings’ home in order to deliver Colonel Brandon’s news about a new job. I have one last major problem. Why on earth did costume designer had Elinor and Marianne wearing identical traveling outfits? They were not twin sisters. And no siblings from an upper-class family – especially of the female gender – would be caught dead in this manner:

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What was costumer designer Charles Knode thinking?

I also had some problems with the casting and performances. I had a real problem with actress Ciaran Madden’s performance as Marianne Dashwood. How can I put it? It was over-the-top. I realize that she was at least 25 years old at the time this production was filmed. But did she and director David Giles really thought an exaggerated performance was necessary to portray the emotional 17 year-old Marianne? Was that their idea of portraying an emotional adolescent? And why would actor Michael Alderidge use a strong, regional accent for his portrayal of Sir John Middleton? I realize that his mother-in-law and wife came from a middle-class background. But Sir John and his cousin Mrs. Dashwood, did not. Both actresses who portrayed the Steele sisters – Frances Cuka and Maggie Jones – seemed at least a decade-and-a-half too old for their roles. And Kay Gallie’s Fanny Dashwood seemed like such a major disappointment. Her Fanny struck me as too passive-aggressive and nervous in compare to the other actresses who portrayed the role.

But despite some disappointments, I must admit that “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” turned out to be a pretty good production. Hell, I like it a lot more than I do the 1981 television version. Thanks to Constanduros’s script and Giles’ direction, the four-part miniseries struck me as well paced – aside from Marianne and Willoughby’s courtship. Aside from the traveling outfits, I must admit that I found Knode’s costume designs both colorful and elegant. And like the 1995 movie, I was happy to see that the screenplay allowed Marianne to become aware of Colonel Brandon before her meeting with Willoughby . . . allowing the pair’s eventual romance in the last episode very credible.

There were also some very good performances in “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. I found myself surprisingly impressed by Richard Owens’ performance as Colonel Brandon. At first, I barely paid attention to him. But I must admit that his performance actually grew on me and I thought he did a credible job of slowly revealing Brandon’s passion for Marianne. Despite his strong regional accent, I must admit that Michael Aldridge was perfectly cast as Mrs. Dashwood’s gregarious cousin, Sir John Middleton. And despite her age, Frances Cuka did a very good of conveying Lucy Steele’s manipulations regarding Edward, Elinor and the Ferrars family . . . even if I found it a bit obvious. I was very impressed by Milton Johns’ performance as Elinor and Marianne’s spineless older half-brother John Dashwood. In fact, I feel that he gave one of the better performances in the miniseries. Robin Ellis gave a solid performance as Edward Ferrars. However, I must admit that I was not that impressed by his screen chemistry with Joanna David’s Elinor. In an ARTICLE I had written about Jane Austen’s rogues, I stated that I found Clive Francis’ portrayal of the caddish John Willoughby unmemorable. I take it back. On a second viewing, I found myself surprisingly impressed by his performance. I think I may have been distracted by the so-called Regency wig he was wearing . . . or the speed of the Marianne-Willoughby courtship. But I thought he gave a very complex performance.

But there were two performances in “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” that I found outstanding. One of them belonged to Joanna David, who was perfect – well . . . almost – as Elinor Dashwood. She was one of the few performers who managed to restrain from “playing to the second balcony” as many other stage-trained actors tend to do. Mind you, there were moments when she seemed incapable of projecting Elinor’s passionate nature behind the sensible facade. But more than any other person in the cast, she did a superb job in carrying the miniseries on her shoulders. The other outstanding performance turned out to be Patricia Routledge’s portrayal of the vivacious Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law. She was in her early 40s at the time and technically, too young for the role. But I cannot deny that Routledge seemed like the very personification of the verbose and interfering, yet warm-hearted widow. Of the four Mrs. Jennings I have seen, only Elizabeth Spriggs from the 1995 movie seemed her equal.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” is not the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, despite being the first. And it possessed certain aspects in both the script and casting that I found questionable. But thanks to David Giles’ direction, Denis Constanduros’ screenplay, and superb performances especially from Joanna David and Patricia Rutledge; I feel that it turned out to be a pretty damn good adaptation in the end. I would highly recommend it.