BBC

Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e08 – The Princely Gift

I can’t say if this episode, The Princely Gift, is better than the previous episode, which was the comedy. Gift is about a Venetian navigator, played by Londoner Derek Smith with an accent you’d think was a little strong even in 1972. He’s working with these three businessmen from Bristol who want to do an exploration themselves, not for science and knowledge, but for profit. Smith is along for the ride, because he doesn’t have the experience to get support in Venice. He’s a novice navigator.

So maybe a third of the episode is Smith’s life in England, with his wife (Katharine Blake) and sons in tow. Blake wants to go back to Venice, especially if it means Smith doesn’t get to go on his voyage. She worries about him. Blake and Smith’s marriage chemistry is so good it gets past him being British and her being South African. In 1972. Ew. But they’re both amazing. Blake’s performance is (unfortunately since we’re on episode eight) easily the female performance on the show so far and maybe even the best performance overall. She’s really, really good.

Another third involves the Bristol businessmen, which is done for humor. They’re bumbling Brits. Blake mocks them openly. It’s funny. That comedy feel again, with an entirely different subject, cast, director, and writers. “Shadow of the Tower,” in two episodes, has completely refined its potential. This episode also involves light. Fake light, sure, but light. Light gives the show a rather inviting feel. Very good direction from Keith Williams. Particularly excellent use of music too, possibly by Herbert Chappell (who’s the only credited composer and for the title music).

The last third (and basically the last third of the episode too) involves King James Maxwell and Derek once the petition for a voyage gets all the way up the ladder. You’ve got this earthy, passionate Venetian and this British monarch who might be in tights and definitely has a stick up his ass, but they’re both excited about the world and about knowledge. It’s awesome. If history was actually two percent as cool as the scene, it’d be a good historical moment.

“Shadow of the Tower” really has gotten extraordinarily good all of a sudden. Because it’s still expository—it’s still basically just a history lesson—just an elegantly, artfully executed one.

Death Comes to Pemberley (2013, Daniel Percival)

Now, when a fan of something writes a sequel to that something… it tends to be called “fan-fic.” Death Comes to Pemberley is based on fan-fic from an extremely well-regarded author. P.D. James is even a baroness. But she hasn’t got anything to say about Pride and Prejudice. Worse, unless screenwriter Juliette Towhidi really screwed things up, James didn’t even have a good murder mystery for her murder mystery fan-fic sequel to Prejudice.

There’s a murder in Pemberley. There’s some mystery. But there’s no murder mystery. There’s not even much in the way of sincere scenes. There are a lot of sincere performances–Matthew Rhys is awesome as Darcy, Eleanor Tomlinson is really good as his little sister, both James Norton and Tom Ward are awesome as her suitors. In the “lead”, Anna Maxwell Martin is okay as Elizabeth. She has a really crappy part, actually.

The problem is the script… and the direction. Director Percival has obviously seen a lot of “Downton Abbey,” because he makes Steve Lawes shoot the thing just like an “Abbey” episode. It’s kind of desperate.

Back to Towhidi’s script. There’s no tension. Pemberley is a three-part mini-series event and only the first episode has any tension whatsoever and only because Percival has to try really hard.

Oh, real nice performance from Trevor Eve too. Can’t forget about him.

The ending is trite and simplistic. Percival and Towhidi can’t even handle the most simple of reveals.

Still, lovely acting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Percival; screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, based on the novel by P.D. James and characters created by Jane Austen; director of photography, Steve Lawes; edited by Dave Thrasher; music by The Insects; production designer, Grant Montgomery; produced by David M. Thompson and Eliza Mellor; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Matthew Rhys (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Anna Maxwell Martin (Elizabeth Darcy), Matthew Goode (George Wickham), Jenna Coleman (Lydia Wickham), Tom Ward (Colonel Fitzwilliam), Eleanor Tomlinson (Georgiana Darcy), James Norton (Henry Alveston), Nichola Burley (Louisa Bidwell), Penelope Keith (Lady Catherine de Burgh) and Trevor Eve (Sir Selwyn Hardcastle).


Beaten (2005, Jon East)

Does the BBC have to dedicate a certain amount of time to socially conscious programming because it’s partially government funded?

I’m not asking that question as a swipe at Beaten, which is an hour-long special about spousal abuse… but it sort of feels like it was made to fulfill a requirement. The plot’s creative, but just because the route from A to B to C is different, if C is the whole point, the route doesn’t matter.

Robson Green and Saira Toddin—both in hard roles, given the twists, do well.

The direction’s too flashy and impressed with digital editing, but it’s generally all right.

The format is what ends up failing Beaten. The story deserves more. Writer Alison Hume does a good job and instead of being an interesting, slightly suspiciously motivated short film, I’m sure she could have written a solid feature. One with texture and layers.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jon East; written by Alison Hume; director of photography, Dominic Clemence; edited by Steve Singleton; music by Debbie Wiseman; production designer, John Collins; produced by Rob Glassborow; released by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Robson Green (Michael), Saira Todd (Stephanie), Corey J. Smith (Jamie), Judith Barker (Nancy), Helen Kirkby (Carol), Glyn Grain (Peter) and Amy Searles (Lisa).


Count Dracula (1977, Philip Saville)

The biggest problems with Count Dracula are completely unrelated. First, the obvious–the source material. Bram Stoker’s novel is, apparently, unadaptable. To date, no film version has been successful. The problem lies with Stoker’s plotting. After the compelling opening with Dracula in Transylvania, his subsequent disappearance leaves the reader or viewer with a bunch of rubes. Many of the characters are unlikable, not because they’re bad people, but because Stoker did such a bad job creating them. For example, in this version, Harker–played to mediocrity (sort of appropriate for the character) by Bosco Hogan–is immediately unsympathetic. He’s a rube. Richard Barnes plays the Texan and is awful. Susan Penhaligon and Judi Bowker play the damsels in distress to some success, but when Penhaligon needs to go nuts, she’s silly looking. On the other hand, for the first two acts, Bowker is unsensational, only to get good at the end.

I’ve left a few characters and actors out because the rest are pretty good. Frank Finlay is a fantastic Abraham van Helsing and the script’s flourishes for his character are nice (Francis Ford Coppola has apparently seen this version). Mark Burns is fine as the other doctor. He and Finlay have a good chemistry. But Jack Shepherd brings some–as far as I can remember, totally unseen before–humanity to crazy Renfield. Shepherd’s really the most exciting one to watch, because his performance isn’t as flashy as Finlay’s and has to work on less pronounced level. As Dracula, Louis Jordan has his good scenes and his bad. A lot of the problems aren’t his fault, but the director’s. The scene with Jordan and Van Helsing is quite good, but the third act scenes are when Dracula is at its best.

The problem–the other problem–with Count Dracula is the production. When he’s shooting on film, Philip Saville creates an atmospheric, haunting film (even if the music is always a little too much). Except most of Count Dracula is shot on video–nearly every indoor scene, on set, is shot on video–and Saville is not a good video director. Well, given he shot the film in 1977, it’s possible no one was a good video director yet. But he’s a bad one. All of the indoor scenes are obvious, all the compositions uninspired. It’s a shame, because otherwise, this version is the finest adaptation of the novel I’ve seen. It just follows too close to the novel and so there’s a boring midsection, one where some plot liberties could have made things a lot more interesting.

Still, even at a long two and a half hours, Count Dracula is worth at least one viewing–both for the acting and the generally competent storytelling.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Philip Saville; screenplay by Gerald Savory, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Peter Hall; edited by Richard Bedford; music by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts; production designer, Michael Young; produced by Morris Barry; released by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Louis Jourdan (Count Dracula), Frank Finlay (Abraham van Helsing), Susan Penhaligon (Lucy), Judi Bowker (Mina), Jack Shepherd (Renfield), Mark Burns (Dr. John Seward), Bosco Hogan (Jonathan Harker), Richard Barnes (Quincey P. Holmwood) and Ann Queensberry (Mrs. Westenra).


Scroll to Top