The Brettish Empire


JBTV - Part II
"THE CLASSICS"

JB in "A Picture of Katherine Mansfield" 1973

by Lisa Oldham

Lest we view Jeremy Brett's pre-Sherlock Holmes television career as merely a tableaux of wacky guest appearances, let's consider "The Classics."  These are the truly great roles he played on television, roles which prove that Jeremy was more than just a "special guest star."  He was a very special actor, as well.

Romeo and Juliet - 1957 (Play)

Jeremy Brett made his U.S. television debut as "Paris" in this NBC Producer's Showcase presentation of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered on March 4, 1957. This was also the U.S. TV debut of the distinguished Old Vic company, and the culmination of their successful North American tour, which began in September 1956.

Tess - 1960 (Play)

Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles was "freely" adapted by Ronald Gow into a teleplay which aired as a Play of the Week on Britain's ITV network on July 5, 1960. Geraldine McEwan portrayed the tragic title character. Jeremy Brett played her husband, Angel Clare. (Also in the cast was Tenniel Evans, with whom Jeremy would later act in "The Dancing Men" episode of his Sherlock Holmes series.)

This version of Tess, directed by Michael Currer-Briggs, wasn't simply a play produced in a TV studio. It was actually filmed in authentic UK locations such as Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide, Doles Ash, Plush, Winterbourne Clenston church, and the world-famous Stonehenge formation in Wiltshire. 

TV Times writer David Griffiths observed the filming of Tess at Stonehenge:

"To be at Stonehenge in the middle of the night is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At three o'clock on a cold, misty morning in early June, I shivered among the huge, eerie stones that were dragged there and put up about 34 centuries ago, probably by sun-worshippers.

"With an ITV film unit, I was waiting for dawn to see the filming of the tragic last scene of Tess, adapted from Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles...Cheerful jazz music helped to dispel the sinister atmosphere. It was drifting over from a car, where Geraldine McEwan, who plays Tess, and co-star Jeremy Brett were resting.

"Hardy's Tess is a murderess, and it is on the open plain at Stonehenge that the law catches up with her. Her husband, Angel (Jeremy Brett) pleads with her to move before she is exposed by daylight. But Tess seems to be in no hurry. She feels that it is time for justice, and her doom, to reach her, which they do.

"...Though he was doing his best to look bright and cheerful, 26 year-old Jeremy Brett was feeling anything but. The night before he had been in Bristol recording a television play. He had finished there at about eleven o'clock, and had 'about a half-hour's doze' before starting work on Tess.

"...Just after seven a.m., the sun appeared and it was possible to start filming. At seven-ten, the camera started to roll. Tess lay asleep on the altar stone, while Angel stretched, yawned and strolled forward to scan the horizon.

"'Cut it!' shouted [director] Currer-Briggs. The camera and Jeremy stopped. Currer-Briggs pointed at Jeremy's wrist. He was wearing a modern watch."

The television critic for the Times of London wrote the day after the play aired, "Actually, in spite of its unpromising opening, and the impossibly heavy dialect Miss Geraldine McEwan was forced to adopt in the title role, Mr. Ronald Gow's 'free adaptation' proved on the whole surprisingly faithful. It plunged boldly in with Tess's marriage and sped forward combining the events of a sprawling novel into a neatly carpentered piece of television drama. The weaknesses of the play were the weaknesses of the book, though a tendency to unconscious self parody noticeable in the book was naturally accentuated by the very embodiment of the characters in flesh and blood actors. Angel begins as one of the most insufferable characters in fiction, and all Mr. Jeremy Brett's efforts could not dissuade us from feeling that he had forfeited all claims on our sympathy (indeed one was inclined to agree with Mrs. Durbeyfield's view of the situation)."

A group of grammar school girls was not at all pleased with Gow's adaptation, however. They wrote to TV Times, "...It seemed more like a murder story with a set of characters supposedly borrowed from Hardy's novels, but in actual fact, scarcely resembling them...please do not have any more 'free adaptations' of Hardy."

Unfortunately, Tess is considered one of Jeremy's "lost" TV works, although if the play was in fact filmed instead of videotaped, we can only hope that maybe a print will turn up some day. It has happened before with other productions that were thought to be lost. In the meantime, here's a photo from TV Times which gives us a glimpse of how JB (second from left in the background) looked as "Angel Clare":

Macbeth - 1960 (Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation)

JB (on right) w/Ian Bannen as Macduff in "Macbeth" (1960)

Most Brettfans know that Jeremy Brett starred in a 1981 production of Macbeth (which see). However, 20 years previously he played "Malcolm" in a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of the play which was filmed on location in Scotland. (It was the same role he'd played on the Old Vic tour in 1956-'57.)

This version premiered on NBC on November 20, 1960. The title role was played by Maurice Evans, the Shakespearean actor perhaps best remembered today for his portrayal of Samantha's flamboyant warlock father on the sitcom Bewitched.  The formidable Judith Anderson played Lady Macbeth.

1960 was still the era of "live" television drama, and because this production of Macbeth was filmed for later broadcast it is now considered by many television historians to be the first "made-for-TV" movie. However, according to a 1960 TV Guide article, producer George Schaefer's quest for authentic Scottish filming locations didn't go smoothly. The castle at Cawdor (where King Duncan is murdered in the play) had become too modernized, so Schaefer settled for a more rustic castle called "Hermitage" as a backdrop.

Schaefer also had problems with the 250 local men he'd hired as extras for the battle scenes.  The non-actors didn't take their jobs seriously and kept giggling as they stumbled around in their armour and lost their helmets.  Perhaps some of their silliness momentarily infected Jeremy. He later confessed in an interview to pulling a prank while making this film. While filming a scene where he was supposed to ride into Hermitage, JB mischievously lifted his helmet to reveal--curlers! He needed wavy hair for his role, as shown in the photo above. (No, JB's curlers don't appear in the finished film.) 

Thankfully, everything turned out okay in the end.  In fact, this prestigious production of Macbeth won five major Emmy awards and was shown in theatres and at European film festivals. 

Macbeth even had a royal premiere in London at the Royal Festival Hall on December 9, 1960, to benefit the British Red Cross Society. Incidentally, if you see a  theatre credit listed for Jeremy Brett as "Malcolm" at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960, that's what this it--not a play, but a screening of the film Macbeth (as the handbill below illustrates).

Since it originally debuted on The Hallmark Hall of Fame (and was partly financed by Hallmark), Macbeth had its 1963 US theatrical premiere at the Art Theatre Guild's Rockhill Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, where Hallmark is headquartered. 

Today, Macbeth can be viewed at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York City.

NOTE - In 1954, George Schaefer directed a live version of Macbeth for The Hallmark Hall of Fame, which also starred Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson. This version was released on tape by Video Yesteryear. Some video sites state that it co-stars Jeremy Brett as Malcolm. However, if you see this video advertised, DON'T rush out and buy it, thinking that it's the 1960 version. I made that mistake. Not only is the tape virtually unwatchable in blurry black-and-white, but another actor (Roger Hamilton) plays Malcolm, not JB. I think part of the confusion between the two versions stems from the fact that for some time the Internet Movie Database erroneously listed the 1960 cast in its entry for the 1954 version (it's since been corrected). 

 Sunday Night Play: "A Kind of Strength" - 1961 (Play)

This is a BBC Sunday Night Play that originally aired on January 29, 1961. Penned by prolific TV scripter and playwright N.J. Crisp, A Kind of Strength deals with the world of business. Crisp knew something about business since he managed a taxi fleet, sold typewriters and ran a pest-control company before becoming a full-time writer. 

Jeremy Brett portrays "Julian Bennett," a doctor who left medicine to pursue a more lucrative career at a large accounting firm. Bennett clashes with another ambitious employee, ex-teacher "Leslie Palmer" (Michael Gwynn). Their conflict intensifies when Bennett falls in love with "Susan" (Diane Clare), a young secretary who just happens to be Palmer's daughter.  

Whether any copies of A Kind of Strength still exist today, I'm not sure. Below is photo of JB and Michael Gwynn in a scene from the play, from Radio Times:




The Ghost Sonata - 1962 (Play)

A comprehensive, illustrated study of the 1962 BBC production of  Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata in which Jeremy appeared as "The Student" can be viewed here (pdf file). 

ITV Play of the Week: Three Roads to Rome - "The Rest Cure"  - 12/30/63 (Play)

They say  "All roads lead to Rome," and in this Play of the Week trilogy, one of those roads also leads to Jeremy Brett.

Three Roads to Rome showcased versatile actress Deborah Kerr (in her television debut) as three different characters in a trio of one-act plays--all set in Rome--by American dramatist Tad Mosel. Mosel's plays were adapted from the short stories "Venus Ascendant" by Martha Gellhorn, "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton, and "The Rest Cure" by Aldous Huxley

Jeremy appeared in "The Rest Cure" as "Tonino," an Italian innkeeper. Ms. Kerr portrayed a refined Englishwoman who falls for the uncomplicated Tonino, which doesn't sit too well with her stuffy British fiancé. 

  Publicity still from "Three Roads to Rome" 1963

A reviewer in the Times of London felt the play had a 'high sugar content' and noted, "...'The Rest Cure', Huxley's story of the genteel English girl who preferred the simplicity of a young Italian innkeeper to the pomposity of her English fiancé, lacked astringency and became no more than the story of the triumph of Miss Kerr and Mr. Jeremy Brett's innkeeper over Mr. Allan Cuthbertson's inefficiently Machiavellian plot to discredit him. Any conversion of the story into naive romance was not, however, the result of Miss Kerr's being invincibly herself but of an adaptation which wished to balance the earlier episodes with something simply happy."

Something to Declare - October 4, 1964 (Play)

In this frothy Armchair Theatre entry penned by William Marchant, Jeremy portrays an amourous Italian named "Plinio Ceccho" who becomes enchanted with an American magician (played by Sylvia Syms) during a customs check. Look Westward columnist Anthony Shields described the plot"Something to Declare is an unabashedly romantic comedy--the story of an American girl magician, on her way to keep a date with her fiancé in Nice, who finds herself 'trapped' in the customs shed on the France-Italy border with a handsome stranger who claims to have fallen under her spell! The man is a wealthy Italian publisher, who lays siege to the lady's heart in the finest Continental tradition. Jeremy Brett--impeccably the young English aristocrat--plays him. And Sylvia Syms, an English rose if there ever was one, plays the tough American show-biz girl. By coincidence, Jeremy also played an Italian in his last British TV appearance, opposite Deborah Kerr in Three Roads to Rome."

Here's the Look Westward listing for the play and a pic of JB and Ms. Syms:

JB & Sylvia Syms in Something to Declare 1964


Chopin and George Sand - The Creative Years
- May 5, 1966 

Don't recognize this title? Neither did I. It wasn't in any Jeremy Brett filmography that I'd seen, so when I stumbled upon a mention of it in an old Times of London article, I was baffled and thrilled. An "unknown" JB performance?!

Apparently, this BBC 2 presentation was a sort of musical/biographical documentary. It's described as "Illustrated studies setting music in its biographical context." It's unclear if JB appeared on screen or if he only provided a voiceover as Chopin. A review in the Times stated that the program made "
clear that [Chopin's] association with the novelist [George Sand] influenced the composer by creating the situation in which he could compose more, but not any specific type of, music. Chopin's letters were read by Mr. Jeremy Brett and George Sand's by Miss Margaret Rawlings." 

Stay tuned - I'm trying to find more information about this "new" addition to Jeremy's TV oeuvre. :) In the meantime, I added this write-up to TBE on 6/17/08. I submitted this credit to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) on 6/18/08 and it is now listed in Jeremy's filmography there. 

The Three Musketeers - 1966-'67 (Serial)

JB as d'Artagnan, 1966

TBE reader Helen Elsom remembers a swashbuckling classic:  "...Every granny's favorite Jeremy Brett performance was in the 1960's BBC Sunday Teatime Three Musketeers adaptation.  Brett (looking about 17, presumably 30-ish) was d'Artagnan, with Brian Blessed as Porthos and Jeremy Young as Athos."  (Thanks, Helen!)  

This 10-part production of The Three Musketeers debuted on BBC-1 on Sunday, November 10, 1966. It was adapted by Anthony Steven and directed by Peter Hammond (who later helmed several episodes of JB's Sherlock Holmes series).

The first installment, Enemies, focused largely on d'Artagnan. The Radio Times TV magazine explained, "As a youngster, the son of a poor but fiercely proud family in Gascony--a province of France which traditionally breeds both heroes and braggarts--[d'Artagnan] leaves home to make his fortune and reputation.

"Mounted on a sorry little horse, armed with his father's sword and with his father's letter of introduction to the captain of the king's guard, he sets off for Paris. At a wayside inn a sardonic stranger mocks his manner and his horse; d'Artagnan draws steel and is straightaway involved in a most delicate matter of state."

JB's portrayal of the dashing d'Artagnan was so popular that his fan mail greatly increased during the run of the series! 

Incidentally, Joss Ackland portrayed d'Artagnan in the follow-up series.  Ackland, if you remember, appeared with JB in The Copper Beeches episode of Sherlock Holmes and later brought our boy to a bad end in that bow-wow of a film, Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

JB's version of The Three Musketeers was released on DVD on September 5, 2006, and it's available at sites such as DVD Planet

Kenilworth - July 22-August 12, 1967 (Serial)

In 1967, Jeremy co-starred as doomed hero "Edmund Tressilian" in a four-part BBC 2 adaptation of Kenilworth, Sir Walter Scott's 1821 novel of romantic intrigue in the court of Queen Elizabeth I

According to the 7/22/67 Radio Times, Kenilworth "...deals with Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and the tragedy brought about by the handsome Earl's concealment of his marriage to avoid provoking the Virgin Queen's jealous wrath.

"But since this is a romance, Scott doesn't feel it necessary to stick rigidly to history. In his version, Leicester is so captivated by Amy Robsart, daughter of a Cornish squire, that he marries her. However, his career at court demands that he remain as apparently uncommitted as his royal mistress, so Amy is hidden away in an Oxfordshire mansion, where Edmund Tressilian, her old suitor and the romantic hero of the story, tracks her down. From this point, the consequences of deception multiply, and the scene moves eventually to Kenilworth Castle, where the whole affair is resolved in high pageantry and tragedy."

Jeremy was no doubt familiar with the actual Kenilworth Castle (shown below as it looks today), since the Warwickshire town of Kenilworth isn't too far from his birthplace in Berkswell


TRIVIA: The alluring Amy Robsart was portrayed in this production by Prunella Ransome, who later co-starred with Jeremy in The Secret of Seagull Island.

MORE TRIVIA: The IMDb has Kenilworth listed with a 1968 release date. I submitted a correction for this error on 8/27/07. 

Theatre 625: The Magicians -"The Incantation of Casanova" - 10/22/67 (Play)

The Magicians of Ken Taylor's 1967 BBC-2 trilogy weren't mere entertainers who pulled rabbits out of hats or tried to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. They were historical figures who took their "magic" very seriously.

The first play in the trilogy was “Dr. Dee, Kelly and the Spirits," about an Elizabethan scientist who immersed himself in magic and spiritualism. The third play was “Edmund Gurney and the Brighton Mesmerist," concerning a Victorian psychologist who became a paranormal investigator.

Jeremy Brett appeared in the second play, "The Incantation of Casanova". Casanova was, of course, the Venetian author and adventurer who was best known as a lover. Casanova first became fascinated by  magic at the age of nine when a "witch" was consulted to cure his nosebleeds. Casanova was later thought by some to have mystical powers, but he was actually a mountebank who at one point swindled a gullible marquise out of a fortune by convincing her he could help her be "reborn" as a young man! 

In this play, Casanova uses his "powers" to seduce a young conquest. Times of London reviewer Henry Raynor said, "Casanova's expert use of mumbo-jumbo to add charm and interest to what might otherwise have been the routine but difficult seduction of a 16-year-old girl was comically Rabelaisian...Jeremy Brett, television's favourite romantic actor, was given, and accepted, ample opportunity to glitter with conscious wit by the Casanova of the second play."

Raynor summarized, "In The Magicians, Mr. Taylor wrote about power, a theme never less than up to date and relevant even when its characters wear the dress of the sixteenth century. Dr. Dee, seeking power through magic, submits to the domination of the medium, Kelly, and becomes the tool of his own instrument. The lot of the charlatan, who only wants to manipulate others, is easier, for the unfortunate scholar whose aim is to rationalize his intuitions and explain his beliefs by bringing them into comprehensibility turns out in the end to be dependent on a slick entertainer. It is a sad but really moral irony that only Casanova, the conscious fraud, got anything out of the pursuit of power, for, to the good man, power is a very dangerous quarry."

For Amusement Only-"Time for the Funny Walk"- 9/8/68 (Play)

It may sound like a Monty Python sketch, but "Time for the Funny Walk" was actually one of six plays presented in a London Weekend Television anthology called For Amusement Only.

In this play, Jeremy Brett portrays "Henry," the presenter of a late-night interview show. Henry must keep a boisterous Irish poet named "Mulcathy" sober so he can interview him on his television programme. While "babysitting" the freewheeling Mulcathy for the day, uptight Henry learns to loosen up.

A
Times of London reviewer wrote, "The adventures of the unfortunate Henry would be heartrending if it were not for the fact that he has a magnificent day, enjoys himself immensely and delivers his prisoner, more by good luck than efficiency, at the right place at the right time...Jeremy Brett, as Henry, melts splendidly from uprightness to sinful enjoyment."

Mulcathy is played by Alun Owen, a prolific screenwriter who just happened to be the author of "Time for the Funny Walk." The Times reviewer concluded, "Mr. Owen has given us the most riotously funny play we have seen on television for quite a time."

The Merry Widow - 1968 (Operetta)

This lavish production of Franz Lehar's ever-popular operetta was broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day 1968. It starred glamourous Tennessee-born soprano Mary Costa as "Anna" opposite Jeremy Brett as the dashing "Danilo" (Count Danilovitsch). 

The Radio Times noted, "While King Edward was on the throne, shoppers in Britain and America were being tempted by Merry Widow biscuits, puddings, salads, cigars, shoes and hats. Franz Lehar had not only given fresh life to the Viennese operetta, but his tunes stuck in everybody's memories. The Christmas Day production should have people whistling them far into the new year."

The director of this version of The Merry Widow is usually credited as John Gorrie. However, when renowned British television director Rudolph Cartier passed away in 1994, his London Independent obituary stated that he directed the production. Cartier's assistant, Charles Castle, recalled in the obit, "[The Merry Widow] ran, live, for more than two hours, and we had six weeks' rehearsal in the studio. The orchestra was in one studio and the set in a completely different one. There was an international cast: with principles, and singers, in-vision and out-of-vision. Cartier, who was the complete master of lighting and of the details of each lens in each camera, also knew the score backwards and each singer's part by memory, and showed a tremendous ability to co-ordinate all the disparate elements."

Castle added, "'Jeremy Brett was cast as Danilo. Brett had the charm necessary for the role but was not a particularly strong singer; yet Cartier drew a performance out of him that no one else could have.'"

But, Mr. Cartier (or perhaps Mr. Gorrie) doesn't deserve all the credit. As Ms. Costa warmly recalled in a March 2000 Opera News article, "All [of Jeremy's] friends from the Old Vic had heard me do Traviata, so Jeremy wanted to be sure he could really sing the part [of Danilo]. He worked very hard. Jeremy would bring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and all his buddies to watch."

Jeremy later reprised the role of Danilo on an LP of highlights from The Merry Widow score with June Bronhill. (Jeremy looks very merry, indeed, on the album cover!) The album was re-issued on CD in the UK in 2005 and is available from Amazon.co.uk, along with previews of the songs. (The CD and LP occasionally pops up on eBay, too.) 

TRIVIA: Mary Costa provided the voice of "Princess Aurora" in Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. Her Prince Charming was voiced by Bill Shirley, who later dubbed Jeremy Brett's singing voice in My Fair Lady.

MORE TRIVIA: Rudolph Cartier directed Jeremy in the 1969 BBC production of An Ideal Husband (reviewed below)

An Ideal Husband - 1969 (Play)

Of course, any play that opens with a dazzling close-up of Jeremy Brett is "ideal" in my book. But, actually, every second of this treasure from the British Broadcasting Company's vaults is an absolute joy. It was released in 2002 as part of the "Oscar Wilde Collection," a box set of newly restored BBC productions. (JB also appears in another offering in the series, the 1976 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Husband is also available separately, in DVD or VHS. The VHS version I watched had a razor sharp picture. So sharp, in fact, that it was hard to believe this play was recorded over 30 years ago. (It originally aired on the BBC-1 series Play of the Month, as did The Picture of Dorian Gray.)  

JB plays "Viscount Goring," a dandy who is described as "the idlest man in London." He's kind of like Freddie Eynsford-Hill's sophisticated twin. When we first glimpse Goring, he's spouting a series of "Wilde"-ly witty bon mots. However, as the play goes on, we learn that he's much more than the foolish fop he appears to be. 

This is truly one of JB's best performances. In fact, every performance in Husband is first-rate, and its plot (concerning a potential political scandal stemming from insider trading) is still relevant today. The cast boasts a host of talented British actors, including Margaret Leighton (who co-starred with JB in the 1958 stage play Variation on a Theme). 

"Cheers" to the BBC for releasing this sparkling vintage from its vaults!
 

The Rivals - 1970  (Play)

Captain Jack Absolute is a sly rascal.  His father wants him to marry Lydia Languish, but Jack pretends not to want her.  Actually, Jack secretly loves Lydia.  Lydia loves Jack, too, but thinks he's really someone else.  Or, something like that.

Okay, the plot is a bit confusing, but, The Rivals is a farce--it's supposed to be confusing.  The first play written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals (which debuted in 1775) is chock full of mistaken identity, satire and romance.   JB is "Absolute"-ly adorable as the comically dashing, grey-wigged Captain (whom the famous Mrs. Malaprop describes as "the very pineapple of  politeness").

The Rivals was originally broadcast on BBC-1's Play of the Month. It aired in the US as part of Joan Wilson's Classic Theatre series on PBS in 1975. Ms. Wilson (then still known as "Sullivan") filmed some on-location interviews and introductory segments with the cast of the play before it aired on Classic Theatre. Reportedly, this was the first time Joan and Jeremy worked together.

Incidentally, here's some background information about Classic Theatre:

The series' full title was Classic Theatre - The Humanities in Drama, and it debuted in September 1975. Like The Rivals, most of the other 12 plays presented on Classic Theatre originated on Play of the Month. The plays, ranging from Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth to Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, spanned 400 years of Western drama. 

Each play was preceded by Classic Theatre Preview, a half-hour introduction where scholars and cast members set the stage for that night's production. The preview for The Rivals was filmed on Saville Row in London at Richard Brinsley Sheridan's final residence, where Jeremy discussed the playwright's stormy last days. 

If this all sounds rather high-brow, it was. In fact, Classic Theatre could be watched for credit at over 267 colleges in the US. 

A gala premiere held for the series in Washington D.C. was attended by members of Congress and Joan Sullivan. Speaking to the assembled dignitaries, Ms. Sullivan made no apologies for the preponderance of British productions on PBS, explaining that it was a matter of quality and economics. She felt that American television simply couldn't match what the British had to offer. But, there was hope: 

"We all want very much to produce good American drama--we are on the threshold."

In her forward for the companion textbook for Classic Theatre, Ms. Sullivan revealed that her appreciation of quality drama began at a young age:

"I have a strong personal commitment to good drama on television. In the pre-television Midwest where I grew up there was little opportunity to see performances of plays. Occasionally I would contrive to sleep over at a friend's house in the village and with a great sense of wickedness sneak off to a dilapidated town hall to see a traveling group of down-and-out ex-vaudevillian players (who would make the Telfers in Trelawny of the Wells look like superstars) stagger through a totally forgettable domestic comedy. The most adept part of their evening's performance was the selling of chinaware and boxes of cheap candy between the acts."

An Aspidistra in Babylon - 1973 (Film)

JB as Captain Blaine in "An Aspidistra in Babylon" 1973

This film originally aired on Britain's ITV in on February 25, 1973, as part of a series called Country Matters. Country Matters was later presented in the US on public television's Masterpiece Theatre. An Apidistra in Babylon made its Masterpiece Theatre debut on February 25, 1979, exactly six years after its first airing on ITV. The Granada production was adapted from a novella by H. E. Bates by future Sherlock Holmes scripter Jeremy Paul

A 2/24/79 review in the Los Angeles Times summed up the plot:

"The aspidistra of the title, as host Alistair Cooke informs us, was a sturdy house plant that flourished in England during the early part of the 20th century as a symbol of middle-class respectability. In the seaside village of Dover, circa 1919, it is a symbol out of place.

"This was Bates' 'Babylon'--a garrison town where British soldiers, back from the Great War, paused to raise some hell.

"It is there that we meet Christine (Carolyn Courage), an 18 year-old innocent who, with her quietly domineering mother, runs a boarding house with a decidedly elderly clientele. We're also introduced to Captain Archie Blaine (Jeremy Brett), a dashing officer who arrives to rent a room for his crusty Aunt Bertie (Agnes Lauchlan).

"Christine is immediately smitten. Blaine talks of faraway places and heaven on earth and she drinks in every word. They begin an affair. Christine is off in the clouds, but Blaine has more practical matters on his mind. Aunt Bertie is rich but won't part with her money. She keeps expensive jewels in a box locked in her room. Blaine keeps telling Christine that 'Bertie trusts you...' His suggestion is clear. And Christine prepares to commit an act that will change her life forever."

A Picture of Katherine Mansfield (5/1 - 6/5/1973) - Limited series 

Writer Katherine Mansfield was a restless rebel. Born in 1888, she cut loose from her conventional New Zealand upbringing in the early 1900s and threw herself into the bohemian life in Europe, where she became associated with literary luminaries such as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1909, she married her first husband and left him only hours after the wedding.

In 1912, she found an anchor of sorts in writer, critic and editor John Middleton Murry. They married in 1918, the same year Katherine was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would eventually take her life. 

JB and Vanessa Redgrave in "A Picture of Katherine Mansfield" 1973

Most of Katherine's best work was completed in the early 1920's, including her most famous story, The Garden Party. Katherine Mansfield died in Fountainebleau in 1923. She was just 35. Much of her writing was published posthumously by her husband. John Middleton Murry died in 1957. 

Fittingly, when the BBC decided to dramatise Katherine's life in 1973, they did so in an unconventional style. A Picture of Katherine Mansfield was presented in four parts. Each part consisted of a biographical sketch from Mansfield's life, with Vanessa Redgrave cast of Katherine and Jeremy Brett portraying John Middleton Murry, and adaptations of two of Mansfield's stories, which usually also starred Ms. Redgrave and Jeremy. In the first episode, they played the lead roles in Psychology. (Later in 1973, they would portray another unusual couple on stage in Design for Living.)

JB and Vanessa Redgrave in "A Picture of Katherine Mansfield" 1973

The Merchant of Venice - 1974  (Play)

Olivier was the star, but JB made the cover of the TV log (with Lady Olivier!)

When I was in school, our district had a prescribed lesson plan:

In the eighth grade, every English class had to read Romeo and Juliet.  In those pre-VCR days, we were also bused to the local "art" theatre for a special screening of Franco Zefferelli's classic film of the play.

In the tenth grade, every English class had to read Julius Caesar. (Apparently, the local art theatre didn't have any Caesar films on hand, so we had to make do with Shakespeare on the printed page.)

It took me nearly 20 years to watch Shakespeare because I wanted to, not because I had to.  I have Jeremy Brett and his performances in The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth (which see) to thank for that.

Make no mistake--JB's Merchant belongs to Laurence Olivier and his bravura portrayal of the controversial Shylock. Bernard Levin wrote in TV Guide, "So tremendous is Olivier's acting that he can dominate a stage or screen even when he's not on it; listen to the cry of anguish he gives after Shylock has stumbled from the courtroom, and watch the way in which the camera jumps from one face to the next, as the realization of what they've done to him sinks in."

However, Jeremy and the other supporting players (including Joan Plowright, Olivier's wife) contribute fine performances of their own. After watching exterior scenes being filmed, Levin noted, "These were no longer actors and actresses, doing take after take...they really were Portia and her maid Nerissa, Antonio (who is the Merchant of Venice), and Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Shylock's daughter Jessica."

This version of The Merchant of Venice aired in the US on the ABC TV network on March 16, 1974. It was a National Theatre production filmed by Sir Lew Grade's Associated Television corporation (ATV), which was represented in the US by ITC. The play originally aired in the UK on February 10, 1974. 

It re-created the 1970 NT staging of the play, using many of the same actors, including Jeremy. Like the 1970 stage production, this version was directed by Jonathan Miller and is set in the 1880's. Updating the setting from the 16th century made the story more accessible to contemporary audiences. Miller saw the production as "Shakespeare as seen through the eyes of Henry James. Even the verses seem to be Jamesian."  

Although the time frame was changed, Shakespeare's verses and the plot remain as written. Well-to-do merchant Antonio has a young friend named Bassanio (JB), who loves Portia (Plowright), a wealthy spinster from Belmont.  Bassanio fears he's too poor to court Portia, so he wants to borrow money from Shylock, an exorbitant moneylender.  Antonio offers to stand surety for Bassanio's loan.  Shylock agrees, but only if Antonio (who hasn't been exactly cordial to Shylock) consents to give up a pound of his flesh if the loan isn't repaid.  Although Bassanio is appalled, Antonio accepts Shylock's outrageous terms.

Bassanio goes to Belmont to woo Portia.  Just one catch:  Portia's suitors must choose either a gold, silver, or lead box before they can propose to her.  If they choose the wrong box--Arrivederci.   If they choose the right box, they get Portia's hand in marriage.  Luckily, Bassanio chooses the right box and Portia happily pledges herself to him.  (The "pledge" scene is tenderly acted by JB and JP.)

The couple's joy is interrupted by a letter from Antonio:  he has lost his fortune and Shylock is demanding his pound of  flesh.  Portia tells Bassanio they will marry immediately, but afterwards he must return to Venice to be with Antonio.

In a bit of Shakespearean gender-bending, Portia impersonates a male lawyer to (literally) save Antonio's skin. Shylock is ruined, Antonio is freed, Portia and Bassanio are reunited--all's well that ends well (oops, that's another play).

This version of The Merchant of Venice is available on home video. It pops up frequently on eBay, and it can also be ordered online from Amazon.com.

TRIVIA: Most of this production was filmed at the famous Elstree studios in London beginning on July 15, 1973. The café was modeled by set designer Peter Roden after the renowned Caffe Florian in St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) in Venice. The exterior scenes set at Belmont, Portia's estate outside of Venice, were actually filmed at the West Wycombe Park estate of the Dashwood family in Buckinghamshire, UK. The beautiful Italianate main house represents Portia's home in the film. (The house was seen more recently in the popular Downton Abbey television series.)


 Affairs of the Heart - "Grace" - (10/12/74) - Play

Affairs of the Heart was a 1974 London Weekend Television anthology consisting of seven plays adapted from the works of Henry James by Terence Feely. 

Each of the plays in Affairs of the Heart has a woman's name for its title. Thus, James' short story Covering End becomes "Grace," for "Mrs. Grace Gracedew," a vivacious, wealthy American widow portrayed by Diana Rigg. 

In the sprightly "Grace,"  Mrs. Gracedew obtains a manor, and a man (Jeremy Brett's charming "Captain Yule") as part of the deal. 

"Yule" be glad to know that Affairs of the Heart has been released on DVD in North America! More info here.

And, below are screen caps of Jeremy as "Captain Yule" (added 10/27/08):

School for Scandal - 2/14/1975 (Play)

JB and his fan club!

Another prestigious Play of the Month presentation, this 1975 adaptation of Sheridan's School for Scandal was described in Radio Times by director Stuart Burge as "a marvelous comedy that just happens to have been written in 1777. We've tried to present it as though it were written yesterday, to give viewers a wild slice of life straight from the 18th century, where only the very few like the landowners and the Indian nabobs were rich, and everyone else who fancied himself in Society was dependent on them. It was a world where appearance was all that mattered, and intrigue and exotic fantasy was the breath of life."

Thus, Jeremy Brett plays "Joseph Surface," who is outwardly a paragon of virtue, but inwardly is a miserly fortune hunter.  

In Radio Times, Jeremy noted this was part of the play's "two-layered" style. The characters present themselves with "superb carefully rehearsed charades, barbed and witty." But in reality there would have also been "smells, mange, filth running down the legs."  

Author Benedict Nightingale wrote in the same article, "As actor, [Jeremy is] both sensitive and intelligent; as man, outgoing, enthusiastic, garrulous; and, as Surfaces go, might seem more Charles than Joseph. But, his idea is to be, not an obvious villain, but a charming, concerned, likeable fellow."

As Jeremy told Nightingale, "Joe's a brilliant trickster, who gets fun out of manipulating others; a really naughty character."

The Prodigal Daughter - 1975 (Play)

JB as Father Michael Daley in "The Prodigal Daughter" 1975

I was pleasantly shocked when a TBE reader informed me in early 2007 that The Prodigal Daughter, a 1975 British television play co-starring Jeremy Brett, is included as an extra feature on a newly released DVD with a 1941 Alastair Sim film called Cottage to Let. The Prodigal Daughter was apparently added as a lagniappe for Sim fans (he appears in both films), but it's an unexpected pleasure for Brettfans, as well.

In The Prodigal Daughter, Jeremy--still boyishly handsome at 42--plays Father Michael Daley, who helps pastor a church with kindly Father Perfect (Sim) and unkindly Father Vernon (Charles Kay). 

As the play opens, the trio's housekeeper has quit, and Father Perfect's cooking isn't so perfect. It's truly an answer to prayer when Christine (Carolyn Seymour), a troubled young woman with catering experience, suddenly shows up at the church. She agrees to cook and clean for the priests. However, she unwittingly brings disruption to their world along with her domestic skills. Her presence eventually leads Father Daley to make a momentous decision that will change all of the priests' lives.

The Prodigal Daughter is a thoughtful drama filled with first-rate acting. In fact, there are several scenes (particularly one early in the play where Father Perfect and Father Daley are eating dinner) in which the characters seem so real it's as if one is watching a filmed conversation rather than a play. 

Sim, is, well, perfect as Father Perfect, an elderly saint who isn't afraid to reach out to sinners. On the other hand, the gifted Kay's Father Vernon is a judgmental misogynist who is definitely not a people person! 

Jeremy Brett brings humour and sensitivity to the role of Father Daley. Father Daley seems born to be a priest, but JB subtly reveals the conflicted man behind the collar. When Daley cautions Father Vernon's callow protégé against rushing into the priesthood, one senses that he's speaking from experience. Fans will also recognize Brettish trademarks such as the rapid grin in Jeremy's performance. 

I personally think The Prodigal Daughter is one of the best television productions in which Jeremy appeared, and I'm thankful that it's not among his many "lost" appearances. I'm more hopeful now that other Brettreasures are languishing in vaults somewhere, waiting for a savvy media company to release them. To whomever decided to include The Prodigal Daughter on this DVD: way to go! :->

If you want to find this play on sites such as Amazon.co.uk, remember to search under Cottage to Let. So far, it's been released only in the UK on a Region 2 DVD, which means it isn't watchable outside of Europe, unless you have a multi-region player, or your computer is equipped to play DVDs. Well, however you can watch it, watch it! :) 

Piccadilly Circus - 1976 (Entertainment anthology)

PBS publicity pic for "Piccadilly Circus" w/JB

When Jeremy Brett served as the ebullient host of Piccadilly Circus, a monthly PBS anthology series showcasing contemporary British entertainment, television writer Peter O'Brien raved, "Jeremy Brett has been popping up on public television once a month like a luminous full moon to charm and dazzle those lucky enough to tune in Piccadilly Circus."

Jeremy considered his hosting job to be somewhat of a diplomatic mission, which he revealed in an interview with Kay Gardella before the series debuted in January 1976:

"Brett, who claims to love America and Americans, recognizes his country's need for our support during these trying times and therefore feels doubly responsible acting as host of Piccadilly Circus. Says he:

"'We don't know where we're going. We've lost Ireland. We've lost Scotland. We're no longer the British Isles. Yet, I'm so proud of my country, which is England. And we need you desperately.'

"'That's why I'm happy to host this show. While I wouldn't presume to say that I could do anything like Alistair Cooke does, because he's a genius at what he does, I can still make a contribution toward bringing us together. When I arrived here by jet in seven hours without even suffering from jet lag, I thought 'Why should we not be closer?' That's why when Joan Sullivan [Wilson], producer of Piccadilly Circus, asked me to come here and host it, I considered it one of the most important assignments I've ever undertaken.'"

Playing host was a new role for Jeremy. He told another interviewer, "I guess you might say I'm a poor man's Alistair Cooke. I'm used to playing a character in a situation which has been outlined by a writer and the task at hand is all very new to me."

As host, Jeremy saw himself as "a Horatio to all those Hamlets" and insisted that the 14 programs he presented on Piccadilly Circus represented the very best of present-day British television. He explained that Joan Sullivan (whom he would marry in 1977) had meticulously screened hundreds of hours of material before choosing the offerings for Piccadilly Circus

The eclectic anthology kicked off with a show spotlighting satirical Irish comic Dave Allen (whose BBC series subsequently had a run on PBS), and later presented the crazy comedy of "The Goodies" (who also ended up on the PBS schedule), and Scottish entertainer Stanley Baxter. 

British drama was featured as well, including Stocker's Copper, about a miner's strike in 1913 Cornwall and It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow, about Londoners taking refuge in the Underground system during the World War II blitz. There were also plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Simon Gray, and adaptations of Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass and Noel Streatfield's children's story Ballet Shoes, which Los Angeles Times TV critic Cecil Smith described as "beautifully produced." (This program won an Emmy in 1977 as "Outstanding Children's Special, Prime Time.")

Documentaries were also part of the mix, such as The Circus Moves on in Calabria, about an Italian family circus. Jeremy said in his introduction to the film, "We all think of the circus, like its name, as originating in the arenas of Rome with chariot races and gladiators. But I like to think the real birth of the circus was the first time a group of people gathered in a circle because a man or woman dared to display a skill--like a juggling act--creating a moment of magic for those who gathered around. The circus allows us to be children. Through its grotesqueness, its absurdities, its frantic activity, the preposterous or daring behavior of the performers, through the miraculous communion with animals--the circus celebrates the joy of being alive." 

Ironically, Jeremy confessed to Peter O'Brien that while Piccadilly Circus exported the "best" of British television to America, back in Blighty his fellow countrymen preferred Yankee imports:

"Back home it's American programming that is popular rather than our own. I mean Kojak has knocked the whole of our younger generation for six. Then there's Karl Malden's series The Streets of San Francisco. It's doing fantastically, but then he's just a marvelous actor. Hawaii 5-0 is also extremely popular. I suppose it's because we hardly ever see the sun, it's such a treat...We simply can't do Kojak. We can't do Death of a Salesman, we can't do [Eugene] O'Neill. We're simply not American. Of course, we can act it out, but never as well as you can here. 

"I've seen a number of good productions of Death of a Salesman, but none will ever compare to the one with Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and Jason Robards. It's in the blood, and we just haven't got it."

Rebecca - 1979 (Mini-series)

Publicity still from "Rebecca" (1978)

Here's a question for the ladies:

If a man you'd known only a week suddenly proposed to you, would you accept?

(Probably not, right?)

What if he was rich and handsome, and lived in a mansion?

(You might consider it...)

Well, how about if he was also a bit on the sardonic side, and, uh, his first wife, um, died under mysterious circumstances?  (And, did I mention his creepy housekeeper, who's obsessed with the dead wife?)

You'd answer, "No way, José!"

But, since the heroine of Rebecca is compelled to follow the script, she accepts Maxim de Winter's startling proposal.

The fact that Jeremy Brett plays Max makes her decision more understandable. This Max is more than the jaded aristocrat he appears to be.  He's a brooding man haunted by the memory of his wife, Rebecca, who was lost in a boating accident.  We never see Rebecca, but her presence looms over the story like mist over Manderley, de Winter's imposing Cornish estate.

Max meets a young woman (Joanna David) in Monte Carlo who's the very antithesis of glamorous Rebecca--plain, shy, dowdy.  She's the hired traveling companion of Mrs. van Hopper, a  wealthy American dowager.  She uses her rare days off to spend time with Max, who treats her to lunch with philosophical discourses on the side:

"You should never pick wildflowers.  Never.  You should always leave them where they belong.  The only flower which looks better when it's picked is the rose.  I have roses in Manderley for eight months of every year.  Roses are divine--great branches of light."

Soon, it's time for Mrs. van Hopper and her companion to move on.  Before they do, Max asks the young woman to leave Mrs. van Hopper's employ and come with him to Manderley.  She doesn't quite understand his request:  "You mean, you want a secretary or something?"

"I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool," Max replies.

Despite Max's no-nonsense approach, the girl accepts.  Not only does she get Max and Manderley, she finally gets a name, too:  "Mrs. de Winter."  (Her given name is never revealed.)

She meets housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, whose stern demeanor is as welcoming as a "No Trespassing" sign.  "Danny" thinks no one can hold a candle to her "lady" Rebecca, but she helps the new Mrs. de Winter any way she can.  Like, suggesting the perfect costume to wear to the Manderley Ball, and, pointing out the enticing view from Rebecca's window.  (What the new Mrs. de Winter really needs is some assertiveness training!)

As if living in a foreboding house with a moody husband and a batty housekeeper isn't enough, the second Mrs. de Winter learns that Rebecca's death apparently wasn't an accident.  Furthermore, Max is suspected of causing Rebecca's demise.

As the police investigation closes in on him, Max makes a chilling confession to his new wife:  he shot Rebecca.  He admits that he hated her because she was a selfish, scheming woman who delighted in humiliating him. Nevertheless, the second Mrs. de Winter vows to stand by him.

As the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's death are revealed in their entirety, it becomes clear that Max was as much a victim as a murderer. Max and his second wife are free to live happily ever after.  However, they must live somewhere other than Manderley after the mansion mysteriously burns to the ground.

When it premiered on the BBC (and later on  PBS's Mystery!), many reviewers opined that this Rebecca wasn't as good as the original 1940 film.  In fact, Ron Miller (who admits to being weaned on 1940's mystery films) wrote in his Mystery! companion book, "No one seriously believes this Rebecca is superior to the 1940 version."

Probably not--after all, the 1940 film boasted the talents of Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and won the "Best Picture" Oscar. 

On the other hand, we're talking about two different animals here. The 1940 version is a feature film; the 1979 version is a television mini-series. Actually, the 1979 version is more faithful to the Daphne DuMaurier novel than the 1940 film.  It was beautifully filmed in color on location, so it doesn't have the noir-ish atmosphere of the black-and-white Hitchcock film, but its genuine Cornish seascapes are still spooky.  It also has a haunting musical score. 

In 1979, Jeremy told interviewer Joan Crosby, "[Rebecca] is three and a half hours long and we took 10 days to rehearse it. We finally shot it in two days, with five cameras covering the action."

(Two days?! Wow, they must have been fast workers...)

To me, Joanna David is perfection as the mousy second Mrs. de Winter, and Anna Massey's hatchet-faced Mrs. Danvers is the stuff of nightmares.  One wonders if some of the chill in Massey's performance came from having to work with ex-husband Jeremy Brett. (Incidentally, Rebecca was the first--and only-- film Anna and Jeremy acted in together, and their son, David Huggins, also appeared as an uncredited extra in the film.)

The role of Max de Winter fits Jeremy Brett like a glove.  Like Max, Jeremy was "to the manor born."  He once told a hometown historian about the lavish parties his parents held at Berkswell Grange which sometimes lasted past dawn, much like Rebecca's Manderley Ball.  

Jeremy delves into Max's tormented soul as no other actor  has.  A review in the Washington Post noted, "Jeremy Brett, cast in the Olivier role, plays Maxim closer to the novel: He has a darker side; he can be contemptuous and fall into cold rages. Olivier's interpretation was more brooding, with a touch of Heathcliffe. Of course, in 1940, the Hollywood code did not permit a hero to be a murderer."

As Jeremy told Joan Crosby, "Now, because times have changed, we can be faithful to the book, in which it eventually is learned Max murdered his first wife. In the [1940] film, because he was the hero, it had to be changed to have her die accidentally."

Whether Max is pondering flowers while gazing sadly out to sea, or whether he's disclosing his darkest secrets to his young wife,  Jeremy manages to find a tender heart beneath the character's tortured exterior. His proposal to Joanna David's character is extremely moving--would any woman not want to chuck it all and follow Max to Manderley after viewing this scene?

Okay, so JB's Rebecca isn't "superior" to the 1940 version.  It's a little longer than it needs to be, and it's more of a melancholy love story than a gripping mystery.  

However, a 1980 Chicago Tribune review reported that the author of Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier herself, said of the 1979 miniseries, "I truly do not think it could be improved in any way at all."  

And, if had her seal of approval, it has mine, too!

In any case, JB's version of Rebecca far surpasses the pointless 1997 version, a mini-series notable only  because its second Mrs. de Winter is played by Emilia Fox, Joanna David's daughter.

Unfortunately, the 1997 Rebecca is one reason the 1978 version isn't shown on TV anymore.  According to an article in the Toronto Sun, the 1978 version can't be broadcast at this time due to copyright restrictions.  Also, it's been rumored for years that JB's version of Rebecca is going to be released on home video, but, sadly, nothing has come of these rumors yet.

Incidentally, Jeremy Brett and Joanna David were re-teamed in 1994 for the final episode of Granada's Sherlock Holmes series, "The Cardboard Box"--which is available on video.

TRIVIA: The scenes in JB's Rebecca that are set in Italy (e.g., JB and Joanna David lunching on the windswept terrace overlooking the sea) were actually filmed in the garden of Dove Rock, an art deco house located in Looe, Cornwall. The moderate Cornwall climate allowed the garden to bloom year 'round (remember Maxim's "flower" speech?) and the private beach substituted nicely for the Italian coast. And, if you're interested, this bit of Brettish real estate went up for sale in 2004--for a mere 1 million pounds. 

MORE TRIVIA:  Anna Massey and Joanna David also co-starred in Written in Blood, an episode of the British mystery series Midsomer Murders which aired in the U.S. on A & E in 1998.  They played characters quite similar to their Rebecca roles: a mousy widow (David)  whose sister-in-law (Massey) is a demented spinster obsessed with her dead brother.  Also, there was a character in Written in Blood named "James Joslyn" (the name of JB's character in The Incredible Hulk!)

EVEN MORE TRIVIA: The rights to produce this version of Rebecca were purchased from actress Jennifer Jones, whose late husband, the legendary David O. Selznick, had produced the 1940 Hitchcock version. 

On Approval - 1980 (Play)

Wealthy widow Maria Wislack (Penelope Keith) wonders if she's compatible with the man who wants to marry her, so she decides to spend a month in Scotland with him.  Today, we call this "living together," but here it's called On Approval, and there's no hanky-panky. There is Frederick Lonsdale's crisp dialogue, however, and, of course, there's also Jeremy Brett. (And, if you want to learn just about everything about the TV version of this play--including why it's not on DVD yet--simply click on the On Approval link above).

JB plays George, the elegant but impoverished 12th Duke of Bristol.  No, he's not the man who wants to marry Maria--that would be George's friend, Richard. Maria has absolutely no use for George, except as a target for her withering putdowns. Which is just ducky with George, because he's keen on Helen, a lovely young heiress.

George and Helen end up in Scotland with Richard and Maria, and soon everyone begins to see the others as they really are.  Helen realizes George is a selfish, conceited bore, and refuses his proposal.  She tells George he should have just asked for her money and "not included me with it."  She cuts him to the quick by suggesting he marry Maria instead.

Then, Richard realizes Maria is also a selfish, conceited bore, and takes back his proposal.  Now what?

Although disillusioned by their behavior, Richard and Helen think there's still hope for their partners.  They hatch a plot to force Maria and George to redeem themselves.  Richard and Helen leave just as a blizzard is descending upon Maria and George.  As the play ends, Maria tells George she and her late husband were once snowed in for three weeks.  George deadpans, "Don't bother to lock your door tonight--only the snow would want to come in."

Now, there's been some discussion among Brettfans as to whether Maria and George eventually end up together.  They did, in other versions of the play. For instance, in the 1944 British film starring Beatrice Lillie and Clive Brook, Richard married Helen and George married Maria.  However, the 1980 version lets the viewer imagine the couple's fate.  Since they bicker throughout the play, George and Maria would probably murder each other if stranded together for weeks.  But, personally, I think Maria and George were made for one another.  After all, who's a better match for a selfish, conceited bore than another selfish, conceited bore?   ;->

When On Approval debuted in 1927 it was described by critics as "a butterfly of a play."  It still amuses after 70 years. This version was another Play of the Month.  It aired on Masterpiece Theater in the US, and, as Alistair Cooke said in his intro to the play,  Jeremy gives a "first-rate comedy performance."  Indeed, it's one of his great performances, period.  His George is an overgrown little boy.  Lonsdale's sparkling wit and JB's deft comic skill keeps the character entertaining even when he's being a brat.  When Helen kindly brings his lunch, George sends her scurrying for things she forgot--"Bread?" "Butter?"--and criticizes her rice pudding.  When Maria wants to play some records, George snaps, "I hate gramophones!"   When she says she doesn't like cigars in the house, he blithely puffs away.  After Helen points out his shortcomings, a hurt George does a (temporary) about-face.  He shocks the others by offering to do the dishes.

New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor fretted that Jeremy may have a been "a tot too long in the tooth for the part of the Duke," but O'Connor nonetheless praised JB, saying he "brings flair and an assurance to the role that are eventually disarming" and noting that he and the other actors "don't miss a comic beat as they make their carefully calculated entrances and exits."

Penelope Keith is also first-rate as the hilariously haughty Maria. Off-screen, Keith was a friend of Jeremy's. She spoke at his memorial service, sharing fond memories of their bridge-playing and of the lively Christmas parties where Jeremy sent his guests frantically searching for items he'd hidden around his home.

The Tragedy of Macbeth - 1981  (Play)

Technically, this isn't a television production (it's actually a video originally taped for the educational market), but it dovetails with the "classics" theme, so why not discuss it here?

First, some helpful hints for watching this version of Macbeth:

"Laugh"?  Isn't Macbeth a tragedy?

Well, yes, but parts of this video are downright hilarious, such as just about any scene in which Piper Laurie's Lady Macbeth appears.  Laurie is usually a fine actress, but here she inexplicably recites Lady Macbeth's speeches in a bizarre, breathy timbre.  Perhaps she thought this would help convey the character's increasing insanity.  Instead, she sounds like Edie Adams lampooning Marilyn Monroe in an old Ernie Kovacs kinescope.  Laurie's odd vocal affectation makes it difficult to understand many of her lines, which is disastrous for such a crucial character.  Which leads to another hint:  Have a copy of the play on hand to refer to when you watch this video.

The video's box states that this Macbeth is staged "as seen in the 16th century."  In other words, this is low-budget theatre, folks.  The play looks as if it were taped in a college auditorium with costumes left over from an amateur production of Cats.  The actors are clad primarily in Danskins and fake fur.  Scenery is minimal, and special effects consist mainly of dry ice fog and colored lights.  Besides Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie, other familiar faces in the cast include Millie Perkins and Simon McCorkindale (remember Manimal?)

Coming from me, this is going to sound like a cliché, but it's true:  Jeremy Brett is the sole reason to watch this video.  While Laurie's Lady Macbeth spiels her lines like Chatty Cathy, JB gives us a weak-willed thane who is ultimately destroyed by his murderous ambition--a performance full of "sound and fury," yet also full of  thought and nuance.  However, one may have to suppress a titter or two when "Big Mac" wigs out near the end of the play and charges into battle with a cumbersome tree trunk on his back.

For those who have seen Jeremy Brett only as Sherlock Holmes, his Macbeth will be a revelation.  His lusty love scenes with Laurie are light years away from his quivering-chinned encounter with Aggie the housemaid in The Master Blackmailer.

This video is available online from the ever-popular Amazon.com.

UPDATE:  This production is now available in DVD format, also at Amazon.com. (That is, if you still want it after reading the stinky reviews on Amazon... ;->)

The Good Soldier - 1981

Publicity image from The Good Soldier (1981)

Captain Edward Ashburnham is the very soul of propriety.  Or, is he?

Told in a unique flashback style, the events in The Good Soldier (based on a novel by Ford Madox Ford) unfold through the eyes of a somewhat clueless observer  (played by Poldark's Robin Ellis).

Later, we're shown what really happened.  Ashburnham-- a tall, handsome, courtly man with a lovely wife and an impressive WWI record--turns out to be less than "good."  His weakness for young women has left him prone to blackmail and his marriage in shambles.

Ashburnham is a quiet gentleman,  not a flashy "ladies man" at all. Yet, he can't seem to grasp the ramifications of his behavior.  When he becomes consumed with love for Nancy, his wife's young ward, he asks, "Am I being selfish?"  When he is unable to choose between his wife and Nancy, his wife finally screams at him in desperate fury, "What do you WANT?" Not even Edward seems to know.  He takes the coward's way out.

Jeremy brilliantly underplays the role of Ashburnham, a man who wanders through life like a tragic Mr. Magoo, oblivious to the chaos he is causing.  It's yet another fine Brett performance which deserves to be seen, but which is probably stuck in copyright limbo somewhere...

 ...BUT NOT ANYMORE! :-> Good news: The Good Solider was released on DVD from Acorn Media on April 24, 2007! 

WATCH A PREVIEW HERE!

YOU CAN ORDER YOUR DVD  from Amazon, Deep Discount and other fine merchants! (NOTE: Amazon lists it as "NTSC".) 

Now, hopefully, they'll release Rebecca some day, too! ;->

SILENT KNIGHT
The Morte d'Arthur
- 1984

JB as a hirsute King Arthur in "The Morte d'Arthur" - 1984

In 1984, Jeremy Brett played one of his most unusual roles: King Arthur.

Now, what's so unusual about King Arthur? Many other actors had previously spoken or sang the role. However, JB portrayed the legendary king without saying a word in The Morte d'Arthur, a BBC2 TV production based on Sir Thomas Malory's 15th-century work of the same title. An actor portraying Malory read the tale over the soundtrack as JB and other performers mimed its events and emotions.

This unique vision of The Morte d'Arthur was the brainchild of director Gillian Lynne (who had also directed and choreographed Cats on the stage). In an article in Radio Times, Ms. Lynne revealed that she chose Jeremy Brett to play the king because "...he had the right kind of nobility in his face for Arthur, and the right kind of gentleness." 

But, Jeremy wasn't too sure how he would work without words. Quoted in the same Radio Times article, he confessed:

"I find, as an actor, being without words is almost impossible to bear. I feel deprived. So I learned all the Arthur speeches to give me some meat to feed on...It's been complex, it's been dangerous, you hope that the effect of the flood of emotion you show through the brooding look isn't too grotesque..." 

Speaking of "grotesque," JB's Arthur meets a grisly end in The Morte d'Arthur. After spearing his illegitimate son, Mordred, Arthur is in turn mortally wounded when the dying Mordred thrusts the king's spear back
into his head.

Incidentally, Mordred was played by Nickolas Grace, who worked with Jeremy again in The Master Blackmailer (as Bertrand, the blackmailer's French henchman). After Jeremy's passing, Grace recalled that during the filming of their final scene in The Morte d'Arthur, JB had asked him to strike his helmet harder, so Arthur's death would look more realistic. Grace complied, but then JB screamed out in pain and claimed that the blow had driven his contact lens into his eye. However, JB said he didn't blame Grace for potentially blinding him, because he had asked Grace to hit him harder! Grace also remembered that Jeremy threw a tantrum on the set when the film wasn't completed on time. JB immediately apologized, though, sweetly explaining that he'd just needed to vent his frustration! (After all, he had all those words pent up inside of him....) ;->

Apparently, The Morte d'Arthur is not available on VHS or DVD, so we can only hope it's waiting in the BBC's vaults for a "once and future" release.


Originally published (as TBE Vol. III #9): November 2, 1997.
Last updated: December 9, 2012.

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