Acorn Media // 1978 // 366 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 2nd, 2013
"The quintessential portrayal of the iconic character."
World War II left a lot of social detritus to sift through. There were, of course, the obvious physical things to put right after the war -- the bombed-out ruins, the sorting out of the food supply -- but victory for the Allies came at a high cost in other ways as well. The privation experienced by many Europeans after the war -- combined with the social fluidity that always attends war -- meant that life in Great Britain was quite different for everyone. This social shift would ultimately culminate in the rise of a "Swinging London" and the punk movement for the next generation, but even before that we can see artists working out the significant of the war and its effects on social life. One of the classic examples is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel by Scottish writer Muriel Spark. Set in the world of the girls' school in Scotland in the decade leading up to the war, the book provides a snapshot of history while also mulling over the connection between the personal and the political. It's a classic novel (one of the best of the century according to the Modern Library) and has been famously adapted into a big screen feature that provided the opportunity for Maggie Smith to win her first Oscar. Less well-known is the 1978 Scottish TV adaptation. At six hours, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie offers the short novel much room to breathe, though many viewers might be turned off by late-seventies production values.
Miss Jean Brodie (Geraldine McEwan, Agatha Christie's Marple) arrives at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh in the Scotland of the 1930s. Though she's not a radical (or even a progressive), she's an outsized enough personality to rub up against the school's administration while she tries to inspire a group of girls around her to achieve their best.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie plays out almost like an anti-Dead Poets Society. Both films are about the overwhelming influence that a teacher can have on young minds, but whereas Dead Poets Society showed a schoolteacher in an overwhelmingly positive light, Miss Jean Brodie is not so clear. Instead, Prime feels like a mash-up between a traditional coming-of-age story and more modern fare like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl. Though Miss Brodie is obviously inspirational to her charges in the way that Robin Williams is in Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie spends more time on the internal politics of the group of young women. Here there is more fighting for attention, more jockeying for position, and ultimately perhaps more drama.
The box art claims that Muriel Spark thought Geraldine McEwan's performance was "quintessential," and though I wouldn't want to compare her to Maggie Smith, her performance here is wonderful. She's both imperious and inspiring in equal measure, exactly the kind of influential that could make a young person feel either heroic or terribly small. All the young girls (and they are young girls, unlike the film version's twenty-somethings) acquit themselves admirably, capturing all the awe that Miss Jean Brodie inspires in them.
All seven episodes of the show look fine on this DVD release. Shot on video in the late 1970s, these transfers accurately reflect the material they have to work with. The transfers are slightly windowboxed 1.33:1 presentations. The video source gives everything a flat, two-dimensional look, and colors are fairly muted. Though there is a bit of jagged motion and noise in some scenes, it seems like it's the product of the source more than these transfers. Though by no means reference quality, everything is perfectly watchable here. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo tracks are similarly a product of their time. Dialogue is audible throughout, which is the important thing, even if the show's score sounds a bit thin in place. As long as you don't expect immersive directionality, these tracks won't disappoint.
The set's lone extra is an excerpt from a Scottish news program. Dame Muriel Spark was awarded a prize, and she donated some of the money to the school which was the inspiration for her novel. The 2-minute segment spends time talking about the prize, Spark's novel, the TV adaptation, and also the school itself. It's a nice mix of narration, an interview with Spark, and footage from the school itself. Though more would be appreciated in the way of extras, this short featurette is a surprisingly interesting peek at the show's afterlife.
This version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will always be overshadowed by its bigger-budgeted, Maggie Smith-helmed film. Part of the reason is surely temporal. Maggie Smith got there first and made her mark on a famous literary character a decade before this television version. More problematic, though, is the late-seventies production values. Scottish television (much like their BBC cousins) has always known how to hire talented actors, but in the seventies, they struggled with bringing production value to their series. The vast majority of their output was restricted to television studios, and Jean Brodie is no exception. That means that the whole affair feels more like a stage play than the kind of novel adaptations that contemporary viewers are used to. That helps a bit during some of the more personal moments -- Miss Brodie creates an insular atmosphere among her acolytes -- but there are moments when the story needs to move out wider, and this production doesn't handle those moments well. The sets and costumes are fine, if a bit threadbare -- Downton Abbey, this is not.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a classic of twentieth century literature, and this adaptation does it justice. Though many viewers will struggle to get past the threadbare production, once they do they will find a compelling story that's well told and brought to life by a set of actors in their prime. The presentation is as good as we can expect from a thirty-year-old television production, so this set is worth checking out for fans of Sparks' novel or those who like good coming-of-age dramas.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 366 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated