Prince Regent – Simply Media DVD Review

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Prince Regent was an eight-part serial broadcast between September and October 1979.  Peter Egan played George, Prince of Wales, a man destined to ascend the throne of England.  But the madness of his father, George III (Nigel Davenport), and the strained relationship enjoyed with his wife Caroline (Diana Stabb) ensure that his succession is far from straightforward.

Unusually, multiple writers worked on the serial.  Robert Muller penned five episodes with the remainder provided by Reg Gadney, Nemone Lethbridge and Ian Curteis.  Carl Davis scored the music whilst Michael Simpson and Michael Hayes shared directing duties.

As might be expected, Peter Egan is supported by a highly impressive cast.  Nigel Davenport, Francis White, Keith Barron, Clive Merrison, Susannah York, Diana Stabb, David Horovitch, Barbara Shelley, Caroline Blakiston, Murray Head, David Collings, Cheri Lunghi and Patsy Kensit all appear in multiple episodes whilst the likes of Geoffrey Chater, Jane Freeman, Jo Kendall and Trevor Martin make one-off appearances.

Below is a brief episode by episode review.

Episode One – Mad For Love – 4th September 1979

In his own estimate talented, passionate, sensitive, a lover of art, of sport, of freedom, of women. In his father’s opinion scandalous and irresponsible, a drunkard, a ne’er-do-well, a lecher. 1782, and George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne of England, approaches his coming-of-age (Radio Times Listing)

Mad for Love opens with a montage of the Prince of Wales enjoying various pursuts (fencing, shooting, carriage racing) which quickly establishes his less than serious nature. That he’s easily distracted by a pretty face is also in evidence after Maria Fitzherbert (Susannah York) catches his eye. The Prince finds (much to his amazement) that he’s violently in love with her, something which Maria – after listing George’s numerous previous conquests – finds impossible to believe.

The testy relationship enjoyed between the King and the Prince of Wales is explored for the first time. The King (wonderfully portrayed by Nigel Davenport) has a low opinion of his son, but it’s puzzling that he denies the Prince the opportunity to serve in the army. By doing so he condems his son to sort of aimless life he claims to despise.

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Episode Two – Put Not Your Trust in Princes – 11th September 1979

The Prince has married his beloved Maria. The ceremony is illegal and secret, hidden not only from the King but also from Fox. And the rumours and whispers of scandal, soon begin … (Radio Times listing)

Nigel Davenport continues to entertain as George III. Whether he’s at the dining table and lecturing his children about why they can’t afford certain fruit (Egan’s in full eye-rolling mode here) or displaying a lack of interest in the Bard (“oh dear god, not Shakespeare. Detest the fellow, sad stuff”) he’s great fun. But the early signs of the King’s madness casts a shadow, especially as we know what’s to come. It also has to be said that whenever George III goes “what, what, what” (which he does rather often) I can’t help but be reminded of Neddy Seagoon ….

Keith Barron, another quality player, gives a strong performance as Fox, although his heavy 5 o’clock shadow makes him look rather odd. Malcolm Terris, as a yokel politician bitterely opposed to George’s marriage, has a couple of nice scenes.

Episode Three – The Bride from Brunswick – 18th September 1979

The illegal marriage to Maria turning cold, his debts steadily increasing, the Prince begins to think the unthinkable. Why not a second, official, marriage? But who will be the bride this time? (Radio Times listing)

The Prince decides to show his gratitude to his father for settling his substantial debts by agreeing to marry whoever the King chooses. George III plumps for Princess Caroline, who is, to put it mildly, a woman of character.

James Harris, the Earl of Malmsbury (Julian Curry), is given the task of travelling to Brunswick, Germany, to arrange the match. The court at Brunswick is a delight, with Ralph Michael offering a fine comic turn as the Earl of Brunswick. The Earl likes to have endless fanfares whenever he eats, even if it means that the unfortunate players pass out after straining to maintain the notes!

Caroline is a real handful and it’s plain that she’ll shake up the Prince’s life. The meeting between Caroline and George’s most prominent mistress Lady Frances Jersey (Caroline Blakinston) is a treat but this is topped when George and Caroline first set eyes on each other. He recoils at her heavily made-up face whilst she bitterly comments that “he’s terrible fat and by no means as handsome as his portrait”. This is not going to be a marriage made in heaven ….

Episode Four – The Trouble with Women – 25th September 1979

An official wife, an unofficial wife, and a powerful and determined mistress – is it any surprise that the Prince feels besieged by women? (Radio Times listing)

Caroline bears the Prince a daughter, Charlotte, but if he’s to finally extricate himself from his debts then he’ll need to produce many more (each new child would see an increase in his allowance). George doesn’t take kindly to this thought, the fact he refers to Caroline as “that unnatural hell-hag from Brunswick” makes his postion abundantly clear.

David Collings (as Pitt) is yet another fine actor who enriches the production no end. Pitt has been opposed to George’s antics in the past, but now supports the suggestion that the Prince and Caroline should live separate lives. The Princess of Wales’ man-eating tendances (which occur off-screen) are touched upon after George tells his wife that he’s found her a nice house in Blackheath, which will be convenient, since the Royal Naval College and a home for distressed seamen are both nearby!


Episode Five – Father and Son – 9th October 1979

The King’s health has been good for several years but now there are ominous signs of a relapse into madness – convulsions, delusions, incessant talking. Is it at last time for a Regency? (Radio Times listing)

This one opens with the unusual sight of George indulging in amateur dramatics, performing an intense monologue before a select, but appreciative, audience. Although I’m sure there’s more than a touch of sychophancy in their fulsome appreciation.

George III cuts a tragic figure. He knows that his intermittent madness has returned, but the prospect of the “cure” (beatings, leeches, isolation in a darkened room) is more than he can bear. Davenport once again commands the screen.

George’s wish that his father either dies or goes properly mad is chilling.

Episode Six – God Save the King – 16th October 1979

A delicate investigation has been ordered into the alleged adultery of Princess Caroline. The Prince sees a chance for divorce from his hated wife. (Radio Times listing)

Peter Egan’s appearance at the start of this episode comes as a bit of a shock. He was slighly made up in the previous episode in order to portray an ageing and portlier George, but here it’s even more pronounced. Oddly, George III looks no different …

The investigation isn’t able to prove that Caroline has commited adultery, a verdict which rather upsets George. But even with his rather unforgiving make-up, Egan impresses as an older, wiser George. His conversation with the dying Fox is a touching one.

With George III’s madness even more of a problem, his son is finally confirmed as Regent. But now this long-cherished day has arrived, what will be the outcome?

Episode Seven – Milk and Honey – 23rd October 1979

The Regent decides that it is time for his beautiful and high-spirited daughter, Princess Charlotte, to marry. He has a candidate – but the strong-willed Princess has her own opinions on the subject. (Radio Times listing)

Princess Charlotte (Cheri Lungi) brings her new man, Captain Charles Hesse (Paul Herzberg) to meet her mother. Princess Caroline is much taken with him (they end up in bed a short while later!)

Lungi’s appearance might be fairly brief, but she’s yet another strong addition to the cast. Charlotte tells her father that she takes after him (a double-edged compliment that’s for sure). The Queen is concerned about her – Charlotte has a stutter and delights in showing people her underwear, whether they ask to see it or not. Jane Freeman, as Charlotte’s governess Lady de Clifford, has a brief but amusing cameo.

James Garbutt, as Lord Elson, has some acid lines which demonstrate that he’s not Princess Caroline’s greatest admirer. “She’s a foul-mouth, a slut and I don’t care who hears me say it.” As he says himself, there’s plenty more where that came from ….

The episode ends with the bleakest of news. It’s another blow for George, who has cast an increasingly melancholy figure as the years have progressed (a far cry from his carefree younger self).

Episode Eight – Defeat and Victory – 30th October 1979

The Prince prepares for the greatest battle of his life. His adversary is his hated wife Caroline, and he is determined to rid himself of her once and for all. (Radio Times listing)

Defeat and Victory opens with the deaths of the King and Queen.  Both Nigel Davenport and Francis White have been exemplary throughout the serial and this continues right up until their final moments.  With George now due to become King he is gripped by a single obsession – to ensure that Caroline is not crowned Queen and to that end she’s put on trial by the House of Lords.  Leading the prosecution is Sir Robert Gifford (James Cossins).  Cossins, the latest in a long line of wonderful character actors to grace the serial, seems to be enjoying himself enormously.

The episode title is an apt one, as although the Lords find Caroline not guilty, George is still able to ensure that his wife never becomes Queen.

Peter Egan, skilled at playing charming rogues, was perfect as George.  But whilst he was easily able to exude George’s affable nature, Egan didn’t shy away from showing us the other side of the coin – the irresponsible man who sometimes rode roughshod over others. Capricious, charming, selfish, generous, George was all these things and more. It’s his ever-changing moods, as well the increasing melancholy which desended on him in his later years, which makes him such a fascinating character.

A co-production with Time Life Television and Polytel International , it’s plain that the budget was pretty generous since the studio sets are detailed and impressive.  The serial also benefits from location recording at the Brighton Pavilion, this really helps to add an extra gloss to proceedings.  A typically impressive BBC costume drama of the era, Prince Regent is a sharply scripted and well-acted serial that just oozes class.  It may be something of a forgotten treasure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless and comes highly recommended.  Prince Regent is released by Simply Media on the 17th of October 2016.  RRP £24.99.

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The Cleopatras – Episode Four

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Alexander (Ian McNeice) now reigns whilst Cleopatra Berenike (Pauline Moran) is queen.  Alexander continues to enjoy drinking and dancing and seems to have very little interest in anything else.  War with Rome seems a real possibility, but Alexander has no desire to start a war he has no chance of winning.

Alexander just wants a quiet life – he knows that Rome tolerates him (regarding him as nothing more than an aimable drunkard) and by doing nothing controversial he hopes they’ll leave him alone to live his remaining years in peace.  But his unpopularity amongst both the people and the army means that civil war seems inevitable.

Familiar themes of royal musical chairs are played out in this episode.  General Chaetaes (Morris Perry) conspires with Cleopatra Berenike to depose Alexander and replace him with his younger brother Chickpea.  Alexander’s death is either another stunning example of minimalism or it’s a symptom of the series’ very small budget.  He’s supposed to be on a seashore, although it’s little more than a CSO backdrop and a few sound effects.  And it’s interesting that his death, like most of the murders throughout the series, is portrayed in an abstract way.  Given the amount of female breasts on display there was no watershed reason why they should be so coy, so it must have been another script/directorial choice (almost as if the current Cleopatra – who’s still listening to the tales of Theodotus – is editing out the grisly bits.  After all, it’s her family).

Another batch of well known faces pop up.  Morris Perry, something of an underrated actor I’ve always felt, is smoothly manipulative as Chaetaes.  Patrick Troughton has a frustratingly small role as a Roman soldier called Sextus whilst Donald Pickering and John Bennett also make appearances.  Pickering is the impossibly smooth Roman diplomat Lucullus (not a great stretch for him it must be said, since Pickering specialised in playing smooth characters) and John Bennett is very still and restrained as Philocles.  Given some of the more exuberant playing throughout the series so far, Bennett’s scenes are a model of restraint.

The death of Alexander means that Chickpea returns and he’s now an older and seemingly much more ruthless ruler.  His mistress Irene (Lois Baxter) explains why he’s changed from the younger, baffled man we saw in the last episode.  “He loves ordering people to be killed. It makes him feel like a strong man, or a king or a god. With power over life and death.”  So at heart Chickpea’s the same man, he’s just better at creating a public persona of power.  David Horovitch continues to mine some decent comic moments from the script whilst Pauline Moran (later to play Miss Lemon opposite David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot) is a characteristically manipulative Cleopatra.

Following the death of Chickpea, Rome puts his son, Alexander the younger (David Purcell), on the throne.  Purcell isn’t one of the series’ strongest actors and thankfully his reign is pretty brief.  Rape and incest are foremost on his mind as he’s upset that Cleopatra Berenike won’t sleep with him.  After he kills her in a fit of rage he’s set upon by an angry mob (there always seems to be an angry mob hanging around the palace for some reason) and his mutilated remains are very briefly glimpsed.

So that means another of Chickpea’s sons ascends the throne.  He’s known as Fluter (played by Adam Bareham) and yes, he delights in playing the flute.  Fluter demonstrates his skills to the multitude in a characteristically idiosyncratic conclusion to the episode.

The Cleopatras – Episode Three

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Episode three opens with Theodotus continuing to teach the young Cleopatra about the history of her strange and bloodthirsty family. At this point in his story, Pot Belly is approaching death. I’m going to miss him (and Richard Griffiths too of course). Griffiths has been a constant source of delight during the series so far, thanks to the entertaining dialogue provided by Philip Mackie. His opening words here are a case in point. “I wonder if I ought to be dying more publically? In a more public place, under an awning with a vast multitude hanging on my every word. Filled with admiration at the sight of how nobly a truly good man could die.”

Griffiths, like the rest of the cast, didn’t make any effort to do “noble” acting. Instead, everyone plays in a modern conversational style, which is quite unlike, say, the more stilted delivery of Biblical classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood. This may be another reason, along with the camera effects and impressionistic sets, why the series received such a muted reception.  The Cleopatras doesn’t feel like the traditional historical drama that many were no doubt expecting and it’s mixture of ripe acting and dark humour seemed to have caught many by surprise.  Make no doubt, it is a funny series.  Some may contend that it’s unintentionally so, but I think that both Philip Mackie and director John Frankau knew exactly what they were doing.

The scene where Cleopatra’s eldest daughter (Sue Holderness) and her husband Chickpea (David Horovitch) visit the dying Pot Belly is a good case in point.  They bound into the room, hand in hand, to ask how he is.  When he tells them that he’s dying, she bursts into hysterics.  Her histrionics are so utterly false (and Pot Belly isn’t taken in for a moment) that you can view this moment one of two ways – either Sue Holderness was indulging in some ripe overacting or she was playing to the script (which strongly implies that everybody’s constantly playing games with everybody else, but etiquette means that they can’t publicly say so).

It’s highly entertaining to see Marlene and Chief Inspector Slack in such unusual garb and there’s some other familiar faces who find themselves with shaven heads and remarkable – and brief – costumes.  Alexander (Ian McNeice) is another of Pot Belly’s sons who, like Chickpea, has his eyes on the throne.

Pot Belly’s dying words (his death scene is another hysterical moment) creates a storm of controversy, which is exactly what he wished.  He commands his wife to choose which of their two sons should rule.  By right of succession the throne belongs to Chickpea, but Cleopatra chooses Alexander instead.  This sparks a storm of protest and Cleopatra is forced to back down.  The discontent of the mob and their delight when Chickpea is confirmed as ruler is largely achieved via sound effects.  It’s a theatrical – and low budget – solution, but it works.

I love David Horovitch’s impossibly wet Chickpea.  Horovitch plays him as a thoroughly decent sort of chap, which means he’s totally out of his depth in Cleopatra’s court, where everybody seems to be plotting against everybody else.  Eventually Cleopatra orders his death and sets the mob on him.  His reaction when he’s told this by a loyal servant is another comic moment – he changes in a minute from an autocratic ruler to a lost child.

If The Cleopatras lacks the depth of I, Claudius (characters feel more insubstantial) then there’s still plenty of incidental pleasures to be enjoyed along the way.  Ian McNeice’s impressive dancing at the end of this episode being a case in point!