Sunday, December 16, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Television

Francesca Annis in Lillie

Most of our favorite television series of 2011—among them Daniel Deronda, The Barchester Chronicles, Cranford, and Desperate Romantics—were set in the high Victorian Era of the mid-1800s. In 2012 we seemed to be following a chronological thread forward to the Vicwardian age of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lillie, The Duchess of Duke Street, and Tipping the Velvet), and beyond to the 1920s and 30s (The House of Eliott).

Mrs. Langtry by Edward Poynter, 1878

Lillie (ITV, 1978) is based on the scandalous life of Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), who cut a swath through the late-Victorian artistic and aristocratic worlds. A renowned beauty, she was painted by John Everett Millais, Frank Miles, James Sant, Edward Poynter and others. A famous actress, she was a close friend of Oscar Wilde (the character of Lady Windermere is said to have been based on her). And she took many lovers, including the Prince of Wales—later, of course, to become King Edward VII.

The superb actress Francesca Annis (Wives and Daughters, Cranford) doesn't merely portray Lillie, she inhabits her, making her passions and contradictions utterly believable. My only regret is that we don't see more of Lillie in her roles onstage, but given her eventful life offstage (multiple lovers, numerous scandals, and an illegitimate child) perhaps there simply wasn't enough time.  

Gemma Jones as Louisa

The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-1977) is also based on a real-life figure: Rosa Lewis, "The Duchess of Jermyn Street." Like Lewis, the fictional Louisa Leyton (Gemma Jones) is a working-class girl who comes to London determined to become a celebrated chef. At one of the aristocratic dinners she prepares, she encounters the Prince of Wales (historically, this would have been about a decade after the end of his affair with Lillie Langtry). The depiction of the Prince of Wales in The Duchess isn't as flattering as it is in Lillie: he is less the charming rogue and more the sexual predator, using blackmail and bribery to coerce the pretty Louisa into sex.

Rosa Lewis, early 1900s
As a result of the affair Louisa acquires just enough means to purchase the Bentick Hotel on Duke Street (Lewis became the proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel, at the corner of Jermyn and Duke Streets), and the bulk of the series follows her attempts to keep the hotel going. If the most compelling episodes are the early ones that feature Louisa's struggles to establish herself against all odds, she remains a sympathetic (if hard-nosed) figure throughout, and Jones' performance is a delight.

Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002): Based on Sarah Waters' 1998 novel of the same title, this 3-episode series has a great cast that includes Rachel Stirling (Diana Riggs' daughter), Keeley Hawes (of Wives and Daughters), Anna Chancellor (of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice), Jodhi May (of Daniel Deronda), and Sally Hawkins (of Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education and Never Let Me Go). It also has a daring Andrew Davies script that features cross-dressing and same-sex attraction in the music halls of 1890s London. Lavish production values, excellent performances and a sexy, literate screenplay: what more could you ask?

The House of Eliott (BBC, 1991-1994) follows the fortunes of the Eliott sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline (Louise Lombard) as they try to establish their own clothing design studio in 1920s London.

The two main actresses are talented and lovely, although it's something of a stretch to imagine them as sisters. But a key reason to watch this series is the costumes. Designer Joan Wadge (along with James Keast in the 1992 season) made the fabulous creations worn by the cast: backless flapper dresses, stunning evening gowns, cloche hats. Every episode is a visual feast of 1920s clothes, cars, chaises, and cocktail shakers.

The scripts aren't quite as strong as the chic. Perhaps because there were so many writers in this Jean Marsh- and Eileen Atkins-produced series (at least 9 over the three seasons) the narrative can suddenly lurch in unexpected directions. For example, in the first series we're introduced to the daredevil pilot Sebastian (Jeremy Brudenell) as Bea and Evie's evil half brother who is plotting to steal their inheritance. But then it turns out that their philandering father left them no inheritance. And then Sebastian turns out not to be evil, and not to be their half brother. And then he becomes Evie's romantic interest. And then—spoiler alert!—he dies in a plane crash.

There's an episode that clearly seems intended to wrap up all the first-season storylines: on a trip to Paris, movie director Jack (Aden Gillett) proposes to Bea, while Evie is offered a five-year contract as a designer for (and embarks on an affair with the head of) the firm of Maison Gilles. Only, because the show was renewed for another year, this episode was apparently shifted to the beginning of the second series. Rather than wrapping everything up, the writers had to furiously backpedal: in the very next episode Evie ends her affair and returns from Paris to rejoin the House of Eliott, and Jack and Bea's marriage comes under strain.

So don't watch this series for narrative consistency, but do watch it for the gorgeous recreations of 1920s couture.

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Music, and Books


  1. Just found your excellent site while looking for background on the Pallisers for my own post on the series. Got you in my blogroll now. You are definitely one of the more literate bloggers out there.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Lisa. I can return the favor and recommend Lisa's blog Left Coast Cowboys to anyone interested in food and where it comes from, winemaking, books, dogs, travel, and/or life on the Left Coast. And that's pretty much everyone, no?