Praying Mantis – Simply Media DVD Review

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Vera Canova (Carmen Du Sautoy) has hatched a cold-blooded plan to dispose of her husband, Professor Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun).  The Professor’s assistant, Christian Magny (Jonathan Pryce), is an integral part of her plot, as is Christian’s new wife, Beatrice (Cheri Lunghi), who has just been engaged as the Professor’s secretary.

Vera intends that Professor Canova and Beatrice should be placed in a compromising position, which would give Christian (Vera’s besotted accomplice) an excuse to shoot them both. And since crime passionnels are viewed by the courts more leniently than cold blooded murder, there’s a good chance he would be aquitted. But when Beatrice (known as Bea) discovers their plans, events take an unexpected turn ….

Praying Mantis was based on the award-winning novel by French author Hubert Monteilhet, originally published in 1960. Philip Mackie’s 1983 adaptation managed to keep the feel of the original, although this wasn’t straightforward since Monteilhet’s novel was constructed in the epistolary form (with the story unfolding through a series of letters, newspaper reports and diary entries).

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Cheri Lunghi & Pinkaus Braun

It’s always surprised me that Mackie (1918 – 1985) isn’t better known or appreciated, considering the body of work he assembled between the mid fifties and the mid eighties (Praying Mantis was his final screenplay).  He was skilled as an adapter of other people’s work – apart from Praying Mantis he also worked on Raffles, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and adapted The Naked Civil Servant from Quentin Crisp’s memoirs – but he also authored some notable television series.  The Caesars (1969), The Organization (1972), An Englishman’s Castle (1978) and The Cleopatras (1983) have to rate amongst his career highlights.  Three of these four are currently available on DVD, so hopefully someone will take up the challenge and release The Cleopatras in the near future.

Praying Mantis opens with a voice-over which sets the scene.  “The praying mantis is a creature who devours her mate during the act of love.”

The first episode is a slow-burn which sets up the principal characters and their intertwined relationships.  Vera is seen to be cold and manipulative and once we discover the Professor is a wealthy man it seems fairly obvious that she wishes to remove him.  But the revelation that Christian is her partner in crime comes out of the blue –  previously it was stated that he had little interest in women, although the fact we later hear his vigorous love-making to Vera (via a tape-recording secretly made by Bea) suggests otherwise.

Bea herself also seems to be somewhat manipulative – before Christian’s marriage proposal she’s quite content to conduct an affair with the Professor under Vera’s nose (although this is something which would have fitted in nicely with Vera’s plans).  And after she discovers that her new husband plans to murder her, there’s no hysterics – instead she begins to wage a war of nerves against him (replaying the taped conversations between Vera and Christian whilst pretending not to hear them).  And her plans don’t end there ….

As might be expected from the title, it’s the two female characters – Vera and Bea – who dominate the action, leaving Christian and Professor Canova as somewhat hapless pawns totally at their mercy.  But there’s several twists and turns along the way which serve to alter the balance of fortune.

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Jonathan Pyrce & Carmen Du Sautoy

It’s an interesting – and obviously intentional – touch that the title was changed from Monteilhet’s The Praying Mantises, to just the singular version for this adaptation.  This ensures that we’re left in some doubt as to who will turn out to be the deadliest (the uneasy detente between Bea and Vera during the concluding episode is absorbing).

Lunghi and Du Sautoy both sparkle with deadly intent throughout.  Bea starts off as the audience identification figure – we see the early action unfold from her viewpoint, which ensures that the audience is automatically placed on her side (although later events reveal a quite different side to her character). Du Sautoy instantly exudes more of an air of obvious menace whilst Pryce is characteristically good at capturing Christian’s sense of creeping, conflicted panic. Braun has the least developed role out of the four, but he’s still skilled at generating gravitas and weight as Professor Canova.

Although Praying Mantis retains the French locations of the original novel, given the British nature of most of the cast this either seems to suggest there’s a great many ex-pats in the area or they’re simply playing French, but without the accents.  If it’s the latter then it was probably a wise move, since adopting foreign accents can be a little distracting.

If the French locations populated with British actors is a little quirky, then so is Carl Davis’ score.  Davis’ credits are many and impressive, but I’m afraid that Praying Mantis can’t really be classed as one of his best.  The piano is the dominant instrument, with a slightly discordant melody recurring regularly throughout the two episodes – frequently popping up between scenes or when there’s no dialogue.  This does become slightly tiresome, even more so since Simply have opted to use it on the DVD menu screen.  This is one time when hitting play as quickly as possible is most desirable!

Praying Mantis boasts strong, multi-layered performances from all four main cast-members with a host of familiar faces (Sarah Berger, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Derek Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Joby Blanshard, Clive Swift and Peter Blake) making welcome appearances in supporting roles.  Apparently shot on 35mm (a rarity for this era of television – most film productions tended to be made on 16mm) it looks in reasonable shape, considering that the materials are nearly thirty five years old.

Featuring a clever, twisting plot which moves in several unexpected directions, Praying Mantis never flags during the course of its 152 minutes (divided into two episodes of 76 minutes each).  Apart from the slightly intrusive music there’s little else to fault here, with Cheri Lunghi especially impressive.

Praying Mantis is released by Simply Media on the 17th of April 2017.  RRP £19.99.

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Cheri Lunghi

The Cleopatras – Episode Eight

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The end of the previous episode made it quite clear that the power dynamic between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was weighted entirely in Cleopatra’s favour.  Indeed you have to feel a little sorry for Mark Anthony as he finds himself obsessed and dazzled by Cleopatra’s beauty and becomes her pliant and willing slave.  Whether Michele Newell has done enough to convince us of Cleopatra’s mesmerising qualities is open to debate – personally I found Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe (Francesca Gonshaw), to be much more alluring, even though she only had the merest fraction of Newell’s screentime

When Cleopatra asks Mark Anthony to do her a tiny favour and kill her meddlesome sister it did raise my hopes that Gonshaw would have a more substantial role in this final episode, but alas she’s dealt with very abruptly (like most of the deaths in the series, it’s brief and almost abstract).

Christopher Neame continues to chew the scenery in an alarming way – witness his reaction early on when he realises that Cleopatra doesn’t want to sleep with him that night – and it’s interesting to compare his performance with that of Robert Hardy.  Hardy’s Caesar was equally as besotted, but he played it in a much more undemonstrative way.  Neame lacks any sort of subtlety which means he begins to grate after a while.

Octavian (Rupert Frazer) offers Mark Anthony a deal – the world divided up between them.  Anthony agrees (although with more than a hint that this won’t be enough to satisfy him).  Octavian seems quite content with his half though and proposes a way to cement the deal – he offers Anthony his sister Octavia’s (Karen Archer) hand in marriage (he agrees).  This sparks an imperial bout of sulking from Cleopatra …..

Needless to say they kiss and makeup and when Anthony decides to divorce Octavia it puts him on a collision course with Octavian, who’s more than a little miffed at the slight his sister has suffered.

Amongst the decadence at Cleopatra’s court, one man – his oldest friend Ahenobarbus (Matthew Long) – stands apart.  He views Cleopatra as a malign influence and has the nerve to tell her so to her face.  Before Ahenobarbus takes his leave, he tells Mark Anthony that because he loves Cleopatra “there’s no saving you from doing what legendary lovers do, dying for love. I shall die of something much more commonplace, like fever. But then I’m not the sort of person of whom legends are made.”

Although The Cleopatras ends with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang (a little of Neame’s overacting goes a long way) overall there’s a great deal to enjoy across the eight episodes.   Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice, David Horovitch and Adam Bareham all made excellent – and very different – Kings of Egypt, whilst Robert Hardy was wonderful as the urbane Caesar (who it’s true had more than a touch of Seigfried Farnon about him).  During the series many actors flit on and off, some – such as Morris Perry and John Bennett – are memorably good, whilst others are memorably …. not so good, but we’ll spare their blushes.

The Cleopatras is a strange production which asks a great deal of the audience.   I think that in order to connect with it you have to embrace its highly theatrical nature.  Battles, riots and other major occurrences happen off screen and the sets are minimal (with scenes often played against plain black backgrounds).  One weakness is that too much was crammed in across the eight episodes, so at times it can feel rather repetitive – there’s an autocratic ruler, someone gets poisoned, the mob starts to riot, etc.

But although it’s a curio, it’s definitely worth seeking out.  It may sometimes baffle and frustrate, but it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

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!

The Cleopatras – Episode One

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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.

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Three

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Henry is dead – he was shot three times and a sign saying “delator” was hung around his neck.  With one of Peter’s sons now dead there’s a sense that real life is me isoap opera An Englishman’s Castle.  One example of this is when Peter’s wife is told of her son’s death.  She tells her husband that she won’t cry – instead she’ll behave as bravely as Peter’s fictional family.

Peter finds himself the prime suspect for Henry’s murder and is taken away by the special police for questioning.  The Inspector (Philip Bond) is initially affable, telling Peter it’s nothing more than an informal chat, but the mood darkens very quickly.  Kenneth More and Philip Bond share an excellent two-handed scene – like the rest of the serial it’s incredibly powerful, but very understated.  The Inspector occupies a room that’s virtually bare, and there’s never even the threat of violence, but he’s still able to inexorably pressurise Peter.  So Peter is forced to reveal that Henry told Harmer he was an informer – which gets Peter off the hook but spells trouble for Harmer.

As events get darker and darker, Kenneth More remains the solid centre of the story.  Now promoted to programme controller, Peter has the ultimate responsibility for initiating the revolution – a code-word inserted into the next episode of his soap opera will be the call to arms.

Philip Mackie’s three scripts are taut, with little or no padding.  It’s easy to imagine that the serial could have been developed into a series, as in one way we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this world.  It would have been fascinating to see Peter’s soap-opera, which at times offers a meta-textual commentary on real-world events, expanded over more episodes.

Anybody looking for big-budget action scenes will be disappointed.  The revolution does begin in the last few minutes of this episode, but it happens off-screen (via sound effects).  The fates of some characters, including Peter, are clear at the end – but with others it’s left to the viewer’s own imagination to decide what may have happened to them.  It’s also notable that certain people’s motivations are very much open to interpretation – Harmer is a prime example.  In the first two episodes he was portrayed firmly as a man in sympathy with the German establishment, but in the final episode we’re asked to consider him in a different light.  Nothing is ever proven either way, so we’re not spoon-fed “facts” – the viewer is invited to weigh up the evidence and decide.

It’s a downbeat ending, but there’s a possible glimmer of hope.  We’re left not knowing whether the revolution will succeed or fail, but whatever happens we’ve seen characters who have been personally redeemed, Peter amongst them.

At times this feels like a stage play (not a criticism, by the way).  People die off-screen, for example,  and other events are described but not seen.  Some may find this frustrating, but this style of storytelling ensures that the focus remains inexorably on the characters,  which is a major plus point when the cast is so strong.

This is first-rate drama and comes highly recommended.  Heading a very strong cast are Kenneth More, Isla Blair and Anthony Bate, all of whom dominate the screen.  Simply Media should be applauded for continuing to dip into the BBC archives and for anybody who enjoys classic British television, An Englishman’s Castle should be on your to-watch list.

 

An Englishman’s Castle – Part Two

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Part two opens with another excellent two-handed scene between Kenneth More and Anthony Bate.  Peter has come to tell Harmer about whether he’s decided to change the name of Rosenthal to something less Jewish-sounding.  Harmer pretends to have completely forgotten about this request, but we’ve seen enough of him to know that he forgets nothing.  To Harmer’s undisguised annoyance, Peter is insistent that the name must remain and when pressed for a reason he states that he wants to send a message of hope and friendship to the Jews watching.

Harmer is incredulous and tells him that they’re aren’t any Jews watching the programme.  Those that are alive are in places where there aren’t any television sets.  With a series like An Englishman’s Castle, which is completely dialogue driven, it’s throwaway moments like this which help to paint a fuller picture of their alternative world.  In part one it was mentioned that there were still labour camps for some Jews (although most perished in the gas chambers) so the number who still exist in Britain must be small.  We know of at least one, Jill, so it could be that there are others.

Although Peter doesn’t back down, Harmer gets many of the most telling lines, especially when Peter tells him that he simply wants to show the public that the Jews are like them.  But, as Harmer responds, they aren’t.  “We are wealthy and comfortable and alive.”

In part one it was mentioned that Peter’s soap opera is drawn directly from his own wartime memories.  This theme is now developed further as one of the two sons – Frank – is set to be killed off.  The actor playing Frank is highly dismayed when he receives the latest script and learns that he perishes at the hands of the Germans.  In a scene that no doubt has echos with many real-life soap operas, when the actor realises that he’s not coming back next week his mood quickly darkens.  He protests that he’s been with the series since the beginning and is one of the most popular characters, but all to no avail.

Peter explains that the two sons in the show – Frank and Bert – are both based on him.  Frank is his romantic side and Bert is his realistic side.  When the German’s invaded in 1940, Peter’s romantic side died, so Frank has to die as well.  Since then Peter’s lived as a realist, as he’s seen no other way, but events are now changing.

Peter has two sons.  Henry (David Meyer) works on the show with Peter whilst Mark (Nigel Havers) despises his father and everything he stands for.  Mark had a brief scene in part one, where he denounced his father’s politics vigorously, and in part two he’s arrested by the police on suspicion of being a terrorist.  Havers performance isn’t particularly subtle as Mark’s manic radicalism seems rather overblown – but there may be a reason for this (he’s a radical, but not a member of the true underground resistance).

When Peter returns home, he finds Mark in the custody of the polite, but clearly deadly, Inspector (Philip Bond).  It’s probably the fact that he’s so very reasonable which is the most unsettling thing about Bond’s Inspector.  He’s not brutal or brusque, Bond gives the Inspector a casual air as if he’s just taking Mark away for a few simple questions.  The reality – as even Peter knows – is quite different.  Mark will be tortured and die, unless Peter can pull some strings.

The only man who has the influence to save Peter is Harmer, and this leads us to another absorbing scene with More and Bate.  Harmer is enjoying a candlelit dinner with his social secretary Anja (Suzanne Roquette) but once he learns of Mark’s plight he’s keen to help.  He rushes off to the phone, leaving Peter to talk to Anja – the only problem is that Anja only speaks German and Peter knows only a few words (surprisingly so, you’d have assumed everybody would have learnt the language by now).

Harmer tells the police that he doesn’t care whether Mark’s innocent or guilty, he just wants him realsed – which he is.  It’s another fascinating part of the story – both for the way that a television executive like Harmer is able to intercede in police matters and also for the casual confirmation that the evidence planted on Mark was faked.

Peter has come to Harmer ready to offer a quid pro quo – if Harmer can get Mark released then he’ll agree to change Rosenthal’s name to something less provocative.  It’s interesting that Harmer only learns of Peter’s decision after he’s made the call, but as ever with Harmer, he wasn’t acting out of friendship (he’s well aware just how important Peter’s programme is to the government and he’ll do anything he can to ensure his star writer is kept happy).

Peter later muses with Jill whether Harmer orchestrated the whole thing – arranged to have Mark arrested in order to force him to back down over Rosenthal’s name.  It’s an intriguing thought – which turns out not to be true – but somebody is manipulating Peter.  It turns out to be Jill, who’s a member of the underground movement dedicated to the overthrow of the government.  She’s dismissive of the actions of people like Mark, who it’s implied are simply playing at being resistance fighters.  They throw a few bombs around and hit the headlines, but the real struggle is done deep underground – by people like her.

Peter’s realisation that Jill only became his mistress in order to recruit him is nicely played by More.  He agrees to join, but it’s not clear why.  Is it because he agrees with the aims of the organisation or is it just out of love for her?  One thing that concerns him is her insistence that anyone who is suspected of being a delator (informer) has to be killed.  Peter might have fought in the war, but that was a long time ago.

We end this episode, as we began, with a two-handed scene between More and Bate set in Harmer’s office.  It’s another few moments that zing with tension as Harmer tells Peter that his son Henry has been promoted to director.  This is good news, but the ominous way in which Harmer goes to say just how loyal Henry is to the state indicates trouble ahead.  It was Henry who informed on his brother and this leaves Peter with some impossible decisions to make.

 

An Englishman’s Castle – Part One

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The 1970’s were a fertile time for British television dramas which portrayed the country toiling under totalitarian dictatorships.  Apart from An Englishman’s Castle, broadcast in 1978, there was also The Guardians (LWT 1971) and 1990 (BBC 1977).  It’s probably not too hard to understand the reason why – strikes, power cuts, the three-day week, inflation running at 30% and a humiliating bail-out by the IMF had all conspired to dent the nation’s pride.

In some ways, the 1970’s was the decade of paranoia.  Rumours of impending right-wing coups and mutterings that MI5 were planning to oust Harold Wilson and his government abounded.  So it’s no surprise to find several television dramas had tapped into this mood to produce nightmarish visions about what might happen.

But whilst The Guardians was set in the aftermath of a coup and 1990 was set a decade or so in the future, An Englishman’s Castle takes a different tack.  In this serial, the Germans won WW2 and Britain has been a subjugated nation ever since.  Coincidentally, Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB had the same basic premise of a Nazi-subjugated Britain and was published a few months after An Englishman’s Castle was broadcast.

Casting Kenneth More in the central role was a conscious statement of intent.  More had built a career playing a certain type of Englishman (exemplified by classic war films such as Reach for the Sky).  Following the gradual decline of the British film industry More moved into television (The Forsythe Saga, Father Brown) but he still tended to play upright, decent characters.  Peter Ingram also seems to be a decent man – but as the serial opens we see that he’s totally conformed to living under German rule.  Is he simply being rational or has he been living a lie all these years?  That’s one thing that we’ll discover over the following three episodes.

An Englishman’s Castle is the name of Peter Ingram’s popular soap opera.  Set in 1940, just prior to the German invasion, it’s the story of an everyday British family.  Not only is it a success in Britain, it’s also sold all over Europe (or as Ingram says, “all over German Europe”).  Programme controller Harmer (Anthony Bate) is intrigued as to how Ingram will present the invasion.  Ingram tells him that “I can’t rewrite history. I mean, the German’s invaded us, and we got beaten.”  Harmer’s response strikes the first discordant note. “I look back on it now as a victory. A victory for common sense, and decency, and humanity. The triumph of peace-loving people everywhere.”

Jill (Isla Blair) plays Sally in the show.  She’s young, beautiful and Peter desperately wants to take her to bed.  Jill’s also interested in Peter, but has a mocking and questioning nature which indicates that nothing’s going to happen straightaway.  To begin with, she’s more interested in finding out about the young Peter and what happened to him in 1940.

JILL: Were you in the resistance?
PETER: Yes, of course.
JILL: And then?
PETER: And then there was Black Friday, the day that Churchill was killed.
JILL: And then?
PETER: A lot of us were killed.
JILL: One way or another.
PETER: The survivors took to the hills, and lived like ancient Britons. Had a bad time of it. Then they proclaimed a general amnesty. And I suppose we were getting older and more peace loving and we wanted to see our wives again, our girlfriends … so we came down from the hills and handed over our weapons, or at least most of us did.
JILL: You?
PETER: I couldn’t see that we would ever win.
JILL: No .
PETER: What was the point of it all? What was the use?

It’s notable that we never see any Germans and there’s no outward signs that Britain is an occupied country. All the dialogue strongly indicates that following the invasion, the British were left to govern themselves (but with the ultimate decision-making taking place in Germany). Peter has come to accept this as normal – they might be a subjugated race, but when all the authorities are British it’s easy to forget this (or at least push it to the back of your mind).

When the restaurant that Peter and Jill are eating in is attacked by resistance terrorists, Jill is convinced that the terrorists will be taken away and tortured.  Peter doesn’t believe that the British police would do such a thing (“they have a long tradition of not doing things like that”).  “Had a long tradition” counters Jill.  This clearly indicates that they think in totally different ways.  It’s partly an age thing (Peter is much older) but there are other reasons why Jill is much more suspicious, as we’ll discover later.

The scenes we see of Peter’s soap opera are particularly instructive.  He hasn’t been told to write propaganda, but that’s what he seems to have done anyway.  Jill later puts this point to him very clearly.  Although it’s set in 1940, it reflects contemporary attitudes and seems to have been designed (either consciously or unconsciously) to keep the masses docile.  “What they’re saying is now. Be sensible, make peace. We don’t want to die. Nobody does. Survival, that’s all that matters. In every programme you have this keynote speech, your message for now, and your viewers think ‘he’s right, you know’, telling us we’re right. We’re right to go on as we are. Not making any fuss, obeying orders. Just content to work hard, fall in love, have children, give them a good start in life, and retire on a pension when we’re old. Eh lad, it’s not a bad life under the Germans, is it?”

It should go without saying that More is excellent here, but he’s matched step-for-step by Blair.  Another top-notch performance comes from Anthony Bate as Harmer, who is insistent that he doesn’t want to censor Peter’s script, just edit it.  Bate is at his most chilling when Harmer tells Peter that it’s impossible for him to introduce a character called Rosenthal.  The Jewish problem (courtesy of the gas chambers) was dealt with a long time ago, but there’s no way that a sympathetic Jewish character could appear on British television.

This is not a request from the Germans – Harmer is simply anticipating their concerns.  He dangles the possibility that by aggravating them over such a trivial matter they run the risk of inviting German interference in every aspect of their broadcasts.  But is this just another example of the subjugated British being more rabid than the Germans would be?  In the first sign of stubbornness from Peter, he refuses to change the name straightway and asks if he can sleep on it.  Harmer doesn’t spell out what will happen if he doesn’t, but then he doesn’t need to – by now it should be pretty clear.

When Jill reveals that she’s Jewish, Peter’s squabble with Harmer pales into insignificance.  If it’s discovered that she’s Jewish and that Peter’s slept with her then under the racial purity laws they’ll both face death.  An excellent hook to end part one with.

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