Bleak House (BBC, 1959) – Simply Media DVD Review

Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.

So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House.  Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….

Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.

It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one.  Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest.  The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.

When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals.  Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …

Elizabeth Shepherd, Diana Fairfax and Colin Jeavons

It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers.  Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in.  Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.

At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens.  He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff.  Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses.  Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.

Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials.  Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps.  Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).

Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s.  Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.

Andrew Cruickshank

As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor.  Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.

It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)

He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook.  Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials.  Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.

Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.

As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.

Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.

Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.

Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Colin Jeavons, Elizabeth Shepherd & Diana Fairfax

The Cleopatras – Episode Two

cleopatras 02

The studio-bound nature of the series meant that it would have been difficult to illustrate battles or major upheavals convincingly, so The Cleopatras tended not to bother.  With Theodotus on hand to push the story along you just have to fill in the blanks yourself.

So at the end of episode one Cleopatra’s mother ruled Egypt, whilst Cleopatra and Pot Belly were exiles.  In the space of a few seconds at the start of this episode Theodotus informs us of a total reversal – Cleopatra and Pot Belly have regained the throne whilst Cleopatra’s mother is the one who now finds herself in exile – in Syria.

Needless to say, she’s not best pleased about it and Elizabeth Shepherd continues to wring every last drop of emotion from the role.  I can’t honestly say it’s good acting, but she’s highly entertaining.

One of the joys of the series is that there’s a constant stream of first-rate actors who pop up for an episode or two.  Due to the amount of fake facial hair (for the men, anyway) it’s sometimes hard to identity them immediately, but their voices tend to be a giveaway.  One notable new arrival is Stephen Greif as Demetrius, the King of Syria.  Greif’s excellent as the weak-willed king, easily manipulated by Cleopatra’s mother into attempting to invade Egypt and dispose Pot Belly.  It’s not a success, alas, and Demetrius finds himself deserted by his men and then executed.

Demetrius’ widow, Cleopatra Thea (Caroline Mortimer), is a chip off the old family block.  Her elder son Seleucus (Nicholas Greake) has automatically ascended to the throne, but this doesn’t please her.  Her younger son, Grypus (James Aubrey), seems to be much more malleable, so she decides to poison Seleucus.  She does so in such a blatant way that it’s more than a little surprising that nobody seems to twig.

Richard Griffiths continues to impress.  Pot Belly is a curious mixture of diplomat and tyrant (somewhat similar to Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius).  He agrees to Cleopatra’s mother’s request to return as Queen for one key reason.  “The people are tired of chaos. Oh it’s fun for a time, throwing people out of windows, rioting, looting, burning, refusing taxes. But eventually the people long for peace. And what better symbol can there be of the return to orderly life than the reconciliation of those two great enemies, their King and Queen?”

A peculiarity of the series is that although years have passed since the events of the previous episode, nobody looks any older.  This is particularly noticeable when we see Cleopatra and Pot Belly’s children, who are now grown up. When Cleopatra’s daughters look as old as Cleopatra herself it’s slightly odd.  She does have a little bit of make-up applied in the next episode, when Cleopatra is an old woman, but Pot Belly (on his deathbed) looks pretty much as he did in the first episode.

Most amusing picture transition in the series so far occurs forty five minutes in, as the picture contracts into a ball and appears to disappear down Cleopatra Thea’s throat!

The Cleopatras – Episode One

cleopatras 01

They don’t make them like this any more.  Indeed, they didn’t make them like this very often back then.

The Cleopatras, written by Philip Mackie and directed by John Frankau, is a series that delights in its own artifice.  At a time (1983) when British television was slowly moving towards film as the dominant medium for drama, The Cleopatras was an all videotape production which used every available video effect to create a unique atmosphere.

The series makes its intentions clear in the first few minutes – various picture dissolves and wipes (which are used throughout the eight episodes) instantly tell us that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill production.  The sets at times appear more impressionistic than realistic and doses of CSO help to heighten the unreality.

It places the series firmly in the camp of electronic theatre rather than the naturalistic world of filmic drama (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that was increasing in popularity at this time.  Series like I, Claudius had shown that videotaped historical drama could be compelling, but The Cleopatras – although it had a similar mix of power-struggles, incest and murder – never had the same impact.

Looking at it today, you have to be able to embrace the production (or at least to tolerate it) and ignore some of the riper overacting.  If you can do that then it’s possible to derive a considerable amount of enjoyment from it.  And if not, you can at least admire their ambition.  Today, pretty much every drama looks identical, but for better or worse you could never say that about The Cleopatras.

Philip Mackie had previously penned a six part series called The Caesars (Granada, 1968) and it’s possible to regard The Cleopatras as something of a companion piece (both were studio-bound productions, although The Caesars didn’t indulge in trippy camera effects).  Although Mackie’s name isn’t that well known today (even amongst the select band of archive television enthusiasts) there’s plenty of interest to be found in his cv.  The Naked Civil Servant is one of his most high-profile screenplays, whilst I’d strongly recommend An Englishman’s Castle, a taut three-parter starring Kenneth More which is set in a Britain where the Germans had, thirty years earlier, won WW2.

The premise is simple.  Theodotus (Graham Crowden) is instructing the latest Cleopatra (Michelle Newell) about the history of her family.  He tells her (and us of course) that the kings of Egypt, who are all called Ptolemy almost always marry Queens called Cleopatra. The latest Cleopatra will ascend to the throne when her father dies and she marries her brother. Otherwise how will the royal blood line be kept pure? But before that happens Theodotus takes some time (the first five episodes in fact) to tell her the histories of some of her famous predecessors.

We travel back to 145 BC for the first of these history lessons. It opens with the moaning of Cleopatra’s mother (played by Elizabeth Shepherd – doomed to be known as the actress who was Emma Peel for a very short while) who’s emoting in a most peculiar fashion. She tells her daughter (also played by Michelle Newell) that her father is dead. We briefly see his death scene, but it’s presented in a characteristically abstract way that’s a feature of the series.

Eupator (Gary Carp) is in line for the throne, but Pot Belly (Richard Griffiths) is chosen ahead of him by Cleopatra’s mother. “He’s revolting. He’s so fat and horrible” says Cleopatra in disbelief. Griffiths is great fun and a highlight of these early episodes.

Eupator doesn’t last long (a mercy since Carp’s very shrill). He’s murdered in his bed in a scene that’s just as artificial as the rest of the series. We don’t see his murderers, but we hear one of them, although the voice sounds like it’s been dubbed on. Why this would be I don’t know, but it helps to continue the sense of disconnection.  This continues when Theodotus pops up to explain the current state of the plot. Graham Crowden appears in a small box which then increases to fill the size of the screen. Once he’s imparted a vital nugget of information the box then shrinks before vanishing.

Cleopatra’s clearly power-hungry. She attempts to resist Pot Belly’s attentions, but ends up being raped by him. It might be expected that she’d treat him with contempt afterwards, but that’s not the case. When she tells him she’s pregnant it’s plain she’s delighted as it gives her a chance to move closer to the throne.

Cleopatra manages to easily dislodge her mother and proves to be an ideal helpmate for Pot Belly. This is demonstrated when they both attempt to bribe a visiting Roman official called Scipio Africanus (Geoffrey Whitehead). Pot Belly offers him gold (which is refused) and then a selection of topless serving girls (there’s an awful lot of bare breasts in this series, maybe one reason why it achieved a certain notoriety. When Scipio declines them, Pot Belly desperately wonders if he’d fancy boys instead! A nice comic moment from Griffiths.

There’s predictable familial strife ahead as Cleopatra’s mother doesn’t intend to lose her position of power. Cleopatra and Pot Belly are forced to flee Egypt, but we haven’t heard the last of them. And the final image – Cleopatra and Pot Belly send Cleopatra’s mother a memorable birthday present – ends the episode in an unforgettable way.