Jokes? Here? Never! Judge Clark Douglas demands that you pay proper respect to Dame Helen Mirren.
"All you have to do is to look like crap on film and everyone thinks you're a brilliant actress. Actually, all you've done is look like crap."—Helen Mirren
In recent years, the remarkable Dame Helen Mirren has earned universal acclaim for her performances in the Stephen Frears film The Queen and the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I. It's been a long journey for the actress, who has turned in fine performances for years and years before finally reaching her artistic prime in the 21st century. Like many fine British actors, Mirren spent much of her early career participating in television productions for the BBC. Helen Mirren at the BBC allows a new generation of viewers to look back and witness the growth of a great actress.
Facts of the Case
A total of nine different BBC productions (made between 1974 and 1982) are spread across five discs.
• The Changeling (1974)
• The Apple Cart (1975)
• Caesar and Claretta (1975)
• The Philanthropist (1975)
• The Little Minister (1975)
• The Country Wife (1977)
• Blue Remembered Hills (1979)
• Mrs. Reinhardt (1981)
• Soft Targets (1982)
In the early phase of her career, Helen Mirren complained that she was too often typecast as mistresses and seductive sirens. Indeed, on the first three productions presented in this collection, she plays the mistress of a powerful man. Although she commits murder in The Changeling and gets very steamy with Mussolini in Caesar and Claretta (ah, the joys of British television), she makes the biggest early impression in The Apple Cart. She only has one scene in the play, lasting about 25 minutes, but what a magnificent scene it is. Sprawled out on a lavish bed, tossing her hair this way and that, she slyly demands that the king divorce his wife and make her his queen. Nigel Davenport makes a terrific foil for Mirren in this scene, matching her tempestuous barbs with dry wit. It's one of the strongest moments of an excellent play.
Sure, The Apple Cart is a bit on the dry side during the early scenes of political discussion, but once the Mirren scene arrives, the play starts rolling towards a deliciously satirical finish line. There's a scene of superbly timed comedy featuring Davenport, Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) as the queen, and an American Ambassador that is a minor comic masterpiece. Despite being a 1929 play about the year 1969 filmed in 1975, it's a tribute to Shaw's writing that the play still seems topical and thought-provoking.
Yet another satiric gem is The Philanthropist, a play by Christopher Hampton (Les Liasons Dangereuse). Mirren once again only plays a smaller supporting role, but she makes a pretty big impression as the fiancée of the nervous Philip. However, the play is Roland Pickup's if it is anyone's; he is the only actor who appears in every scene. That's a good thing too; he masters the role and convincingly makes Philip a sympathetic yet indecisive and socially impotent character. This is a tough play full of cold, mean characters, and yet it doesn't end on the note of cruel catharsis that we expect, but rather a tiny whimper of resignation and defeat.
The Philanthropist is also quietly subversive in the backdrop it provides for its characters. Through small fragments of dialogue, we learn that the Prime Minister has just been assassinated and that the British government is falling to pieces, but none of the characters seems to particularly notice or care. They're so thoroughly wrapped up in their world of wealth and academia that they seem to have no grasp on what takes place in the real world. This is exemplified by the fact that Braham, a writer, has just finished a novel about "a social worker who gives up his easy life to enter the hard, brutal world of finance."
Into my heart an air that kills
Blue Remembered Hills is a story of lost innocence, of the final hours in the lives of children. No, they do not die, but their childhood does, and that is nearly as heartbreaking. The gimmick of adults playing actors actually works quite well, thanks to the fully committed performances of the actors involved. Mirren is once again only playing a smaller supporting role, though she is once again quite good. The best performances come from Michael Elphick and Colin Welland, playing the two best friends we meet at the beginning of the movie. Colin Jeavons is sympathetic playing the troubled Donald, whom the other children have nicknamed "Donald Duck." All the actors beautifully capture the spirit of childhood, the way that children are quick to pick fights with each other and even quicker to forget about them and be distracted by something else.
Soft Targets may not have the great wit or emotional impact of the best productions included in this collection, but I found it to be the most purely enjoyable. Ian Holm creates a wonderful main character, a Russian man who is growing increasingly frustrated that all the British folks suspect that he is some sort of spy. Holm is funny, likable, smart, and actually quite convincing as a Russian. So many of the actors in this collection either do rather terrible foreign accents or don't attempt accents at all. With Holm, well, we forget that he is British quite quickly.
In the film, he shares a romance with a character played by Mirren, who once again is called upon to provide key support in important scenes. That's what she has done so well for so long, but she is such a fine actress that it's remarkable that it took so very long before she was permitted to shine in leading roles. The appearance of Desmond Llewelyn ("Q" from the James Bond films) in a hilarious cameo role may be of interest to 007 fans, and there are also small bit roles for Julian Sands and Rupert Everett. It's an engaging film with a solid script and good performances.
Extras are not plentiful, but what we get is quite good. On the first disc, there is a new half-hour interview with Mirren, who offers a few thoughts and memories on each production included in the set. Quite surprisingly, she speaks with some hesitation about the plays that feature her most ambitious and interesting performances. It's a fine extra; Mirren proves to be a very intelligent and thoughtful interview. There's also a terrific 15-minute interview from 1975 in which the interviewer describes Mirren as a "sex queen" who is "especially telling in projecting sluttish eroticism." The interviewer asked some rather rude questions, and Mirren responds with sharp wit and class. It's a great archival feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sadly, for every great play or production included in this set, there is another that is equally underwhelming. The whole thing kicks off on a very turgid note with The Changeling, a "Jacobean Tragedy" presented in a rather lifeless manner. All the lines are delivered with a good deal of clarity by the actors, but they feel like line readings, not statements coming from inside the characters. Even Mirren is a little bit shaky here, showing signs of inexperience early on that she would quickly remove in her performances that would immediately follow. Only the ever-reliable Brian Cox is able to convincingly sell his dialogue.
Caesar and Claretta also falls flat. Aside from some of Mirren's lovely moments, the play mostly focuses on the dull babblings of two young guards and the long-winded monologues of Robert Hardy (playing Benito Mussolini rather unconvincingly). At only 49 minutes, we aren't given nearly enough time to get to know the characters, making the should-be tragic ending a little weak. It takes itself too seriously, but it's not exclusively the serious dramas that aren't quite as good as they should be.
In fact, the very frothy The Little Minister has problems on the exact opposite side of the spectrum. The actors don't seem to take their roles seriously enough, hamming it up and turning their roles into preposterous, overblown stereotypes. The play by J.M. Barrie (yes, the fellow who wrote Peter Pan) is nothing particularly remarkable. It's a simple tale about a stuffy man who falls in love with a carefree woman, who in turn liberates the stuffy man. It's a very familiar story, but one that has been done well before, and it could have been done well this time. Once again, Mirren is the only truly redemptive element, giving a performance that is far more comically effective and convincing than anyone else.
The Country Wife suffers from similar problems, and Mirren herself has said that she is not particularly fond of these "restoration comedies." We are never permitted to really get to know the characters; the play keeps us distanced from them and invites us to view them from a smug, superior viewpoint. The characters are little more than a bunch of very silly pawns being pushed this way and that for the sake of comedy. Mirren is amusing in her role, but like all the actors here, she seems to be doing very broad stage acting. The performances here translate poorly to film, a problem that many of these other filmed plays thankfully manage to avoid.
Mrs. Reinhardt is perhaps the most successful of the failures, partially due to the fact that Mirren is called upon to carry the film rather the merely support it. Her performance as a heartbroken woman who has been betrayed is a very convincing one. The film essentially tells the story of a woman who has been hurt, finds a glimmer of hope, and then is hurt yet again. It's a familiar story that many people would undoubtedly be able to relate to, but it's presented in an unbelievable manner. This is mostly due to the ridiculous character arc of the American man (Brad Davis) with whom Mirren falls in love. He begins as a charming and pleasant seducer and moves from good lover to insensitive playboy to abrasive jerk to abusive criminal within a matter of moments. The whole thing is so poorly handled, and the film is ruined because of it. Also, even at 75 minutes, the movie seems padded, and we are unsurprised to learn that it was based on a short story.
Picture quality is also quite a disappointment, though perhaps that is to be expected of a set of television productions from the 1970s and early 1980s. There generally hasn't been a whole lot of effort put into restoring the BBC productions of that period, and this set is no exception. At best, picture quality is grainy and flat but scratch-free, while a few of these suffer from numerous scratches and flecks. Soft Targets probably looks best, and Caesar and Claretta looks the worst, but there's really not a whole lot of difference; none of these look very impressive. The sound is perfectly acceptable, and as with so many BBC productions of the time, there is little to no music in each film/play.
The average viewer will undoubtedly find Helen Mirren at the BBC rather hit-and-miss, but it's nonetheless a collection that will be a real treat for some. If you are a fan of Helen Mirren, or if you have a particular interest in plays adapted for film or television, then this collection is easy to recommend.
Though a few individual films in this collection are slapped with small fines for various offenses of adaptation codes, Helen Mirren is by all means free to go. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• New interview with Helen Mirren
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