Judge Gordon Sullivan doesn't remember ever seeing Maggie Smith working at the BBC, as locals fondly call The Burger and Barbecue Cafe.
An ensemble of legendary performances by the incomparable Maggie Smith.
To a generation of viewers, Maggie Smith will forever be Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter films. But, like a number of other aged British actors (Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart come to mind), Maggie Smith had a long and illustrious career before finding superstar success in America. Maggie Smith at the BBC attempts to give fans a glimpse into her past, collecting four projects from 1972 to 1993. Although diehard Smith fans will find much to appreciate in this set, the casual fan will likely be trouble by the somewhat lackluster productions supporting the brilliant actress.
Facts of the Case
Maggie Smith at the BBC presents four television projects on three discs:
• Talking Heads: Bed Among the Lentils
Because of her stern turns in the Harry Potter films and the likes of Gosford Park, it's easy to forget that Maggie Smith was originally famous for her comic talents on the British stage. Maggie Smith at the BBC attempts to give a balanced history of Smith's career, spanning high comedy to high drama, as well as the Renaissance through the late 20th century.
The set leads off with The Merchant of Venice, a difficult play under any circumstances. Technically a comedy (everyone is married instead of buried by the end), it has more recently been played as a tragedy with Shylock at the center. But whether tragedy or comedy, the text contains numerous anti-Semitic references and characters. Each group that attempts the play must decide if we're meant to laugh at the anti-Semitic jokes or at the anti-Semites themselves. The problem with this version of the play is that it's too mannered, too safe. It doesn't really take a side or seem to have an overarching point. It's as if the director told the cast to just say their lines and not stare at the camera. As for the actors, they do precisely that. I had the feeling that Maggie Smith could have sparkled as Portia if she'd been in a production with a coherent vision. As it is, this version of The Merchant of Venice is far from the worst Shakespeare adaptation I've seen, but the feeling of misused potential is there.
The Millionairess comes off slightly better. The film starts with a 40-minute opening scene which is a tour-de-force for all involved. Taking place inside a solicitor's office, the scene includes Smith's Epifania, her husband, her husband's mistress, as well as Epifania's paramour (played wonderfully by Charles Gray, who Rocky Horror fans will remember fondly). It's all witty dialogue and a gruff but sensitive portrayal from Smith. This amazing scene sets up the rest of the film's action and the dual challenges that comprise the plot. Shaw is known for the social awareness of his plays, and that's in evidence here as the play comments on class structure and gender roles. Despite the effective acting, I couldn't help feeling like the production was too conventional for the play and that the actors demanded a more challenging setting. However, of the BBC plays from this era I've seen, this is one of the more effective.
Included on the same disc as The Millionairess, "Bed Among the Lentils" is an episode from a show featuring dramatic monologues entitled Talking Heads. In this episode Smith is the bitter wife of a country vicar who gives the audience all of the gossip from her small town. Although her arguments against religion are old hat, Smith herself is magnetic in the role. Despite the sparse stage and simple costuming, Smith seems consumed with her character. It was almost painful to watch at times, almost voyeuristic in its intimacy. As such, I would consider it a solid success, even if it's a bit long at 40-plus-minutes.
The least successful of the four films is easily Suddenly, Last Summer. Tennessee Williams' one-act play is an exploration of Southern propriety and the lengths that some will go to in preserving it. This version is faithful textually, but fails to capture the sultry excess of Williams' world. Smith's performance seems largely absent, Rob Lowe attempts to skate by on his good looks, and Natasha Richardson appears too juvenile for the role. Unsurprisingly, the Southern accents are not spectacular (although I did appreciate Richard E. Grant's). The ugly sets and lighting do little to feeling that no one was committed to the project.
The four films included here are presented effectively on this set. The Merchant of Venice and The Millionairess (filmed for the same television series) are both fairly sharp but grainy. I expected them to look much worse than they are and was pleasantly surprised with how well the source material has stood up. Bed Among the Lentils was shot on video and looks clean and sharp. Suddenly, Last Summer looks the worst of the four, with a dull, smeary, poorly colored transfer that appears to be the fault of the source. The audio for all three discs is fine, with clear and balanced stereo mixes.
The extras will likely be the highlight of this set for most Smith fans. The main extras are two interviews with Smith herself, from 1967 and 1973. Smith is impressive as she discusses her life and work. Vintage interviews such as these are interesting because they show the progression an actor makes throughout his or her career, and these two are no exceptions. We also get "Maggie Smith: A Portrait," which could be retitled "Maggie Smith: An Appreciation" as we heare from a number of her famous fans, including Simon Callow, Alan Bennett, and Richard Eyre. Finally, we get a radio play ("The Country Wife") starring Maggie Smith. I'm not a huge fan of radio drama, but it's a nice extra for the Smith-philes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although these aren't Maggie Smith's finest work, I have to give the set credit for delivering what it promises, Maggie Smith at the BBC. If you have to have your fix of British television productions, then you could do worse than this set.
Maggie Smith at the BBC lives up to its title, but the films are probably only going to be of interest to Smith's most ardent fans (or serious fans of the BBC). The extras, however, will likely be more interesting to fans more familiar with Smith's later, more famous work. Consequently, I consider this set a solid rental for those interested.
While the films in this set are guilty of various lesser crimes, Maggie Smith at the BBC is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, The Merchant Of Venice
Perp Profile, The Merchant Of Venice
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Merchant Of Venice
• "Acting in the '60s: Maggie Smith"
Scales of Justice, The Millionairess
Perp Profile, The Millionairess
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Millionairess
• Radio Play: "The Country Wife"
Scales of Justice, Talking Heads: Bed Among The Lentils
Perp Profile, Talking Heads: Bed Among The Lentils
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, Talking Heads: Bed Among The Lentils
• Parkinson Interview
Scales of Justice, Suddenly, Last Summer
Perp Profile, Suddenly, Last Summer
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, Suddenly, Last Summer
• "Maggie Smith: A Portrait"
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