Lillie: The Complete Series Review
Before beginning any review of DVD releases of 1970s vintage TV it’s always worthwhile mentioning some of the circumstances of TV production and consumption of that time for those of us, unlike myself, who weren’t around at the time. In the UK of the mid-1970s there were exactly 3 broadcast channels transmitting every day from mid-afternoon to late-evening. Mass home-recording was unknown and repeats were anathema to the viewing public so programmes were made to be viewed once, perhaps twice if the programme were well-received. The archive recordings used for current DVD releases were originally made for sale to overseas TV stations and were arguably never really intended for preservation or retail to the public. The bulk of the audience would have watched on small black-and-white sets (screen size was usually 16 inches) with a tinny mono speaker of a similar quality to a transistor radio. Those lucky enough to have colour TV (which only became popular in the UK from the mid-70s on) would have been watching a garish image with a screen resolution poorer than what we are used to today. Colour TV did popularize larger screen formats but the largest screen size available for many years was 26 inches. So any review of material from that time must keep this in mind when discussing picture and sound quality. In fact, it would be fair to say that we are now able to view these programmes in superior sound and picture than most people would have on original transmission.
Co-scripted and co-directed by John Gorrie some four years after Edward VII was transmitted, this could be considered a sort of spin-off (or more likely cash-in) from the earlier series. Lillie Langtry was arguably the second most famous woman of Victorian times after the Queen herself and was probably the first real international celebrity in the modern sense. Born Emily Le Breton in Jersey in 1854, she shot to fame as an artists’ model and ‘professional beauty’ (often a polite euphemism for Society Whore) in 1870s London and became the Prince of Wales’ (later King Edward VII) favourite mistress. Her circle of friends included Oscar Wilde and James Whistler (of Whistler’s Mother fame) and she was painted by most of the Pre-Raphaelites amongst others. She exploited her notoriety by becoming an incredibly popular stage actress on both sides of the Atlantic and remained an international celebrity until her death as a recluse in 1929. Francesca Annis had already portrayed her in two episodes of Edward VII and portrayed Lillie in this series from the age of 15 to her death aged 75.
The series was made in exactly the same way as Edward VII had been – 13 episodes of 52 minutes each largely shot in the studio on video. Although Lillie features several characters and actors common to both series, only Francesca Annis would repeat her performance from the earlier series. In Lillie, the Prince of Wales was performed by Denis Lill (who had appeared in Edward VII as Edward’s assistant private secretary) who corrects the earlier inaccuracy in Timothy West’s portrayal by playing Bertie with a distinct German vocal inflexion. His performance is not well-served in later episodes by the aging makeup and he was much too slim for Edward in later years. The other significant male characters were Lillie’s cuckolded husband Edward Langtry played by Anton Rodgers with a splendid bouffant hairstyle (owing more to 1970s hairdryer technology than 1870s gentlemen’s grooming products) and Oscar Wilde played by Peter Egan. I recall at the time that Egan’s performance was very well-received (I believe it was the first significant portrayal of Wilde in a TV drama series) but compared to Stephen Fry’s subtle and nuanced performance in Wilde it now appears arch and mannered. Anton Rodgers really has a thankless character to handle as Langtry was a weak, indecisive ‘gentleman’ who died a penniless alcoholic years after his marriage effectively ended. Lillie supported him financially in later years to keep him quiet because he would never grant her a divorce and she eventually became an American citizen solely to divorce him in an American court. He does however bring a pathos to Langtry in his final scenes which almost engages our sympathies. The only other featured female character of any import is Patsy Cornwallis-West played by Jennie Linden. She was another ‘professional beauty’ and mistress of Edward (who it is believed fathered all her children but that is not referred to). The supporting cast, as before, is peppered with now-familiar faces including a very young Tony Head (Buffy’s Giles) as one of Lillie’s six brothers in Episode 1.
Unlike Edward VII which took a fairly steady canter through Edward’s life, Lillie concentrates mainly on her life from the 1870s to the late 1890s. The last 20 years of her life are galloped through in the final episode. As with the earlier series, the depiction is strictly chronological and centers firmly on Lillie herself. Francesca Annis faced a formidable technical challenge in her portrayal as she is rarely off-screen for the whole 11-plus hours. She is the first person to appear onscreen and the last and has to play Lillie from ages 15 to 75. And she was pregnant for the entire shoot! Not that you would notice from the early episodes as she displays a perfect hourglass figure in her tightly laced corsets. Indeed, it looks like most of the budget went on Ms Annis’ wardrobe. Standards of costuming are even higher than on Edward VII and Lillie is graced by a dazzling array of fashionable dresses.
Times had also moved on in the four years since Edward VII and Lillie could be portrayed in all her monstrous glory. She really was a most unsympathetic character – vain, self-obsessed, callous, manipulative and ruthlessly ambitious. Edward Langtry is allowed to describe her as ‘a whore’ to her father. The only thing she had going for her was her much-remarked-upon beauty and Francesca Annis does not disappoint on that score. She is stunningly beautiful and she is unafraid to present Lillie in a less than flattering light. Always poised and elegant, she nevertheless maintains an aloof enigmatic persona and we never really get to see what made her tick. Which is one of the drawbacks of the series. The other significant problem (for me, anyway) is in the final episode which covers the last 20-or-so years of Lillie’s life during which she grew quite fat. Francesca Annis soon disappears under increasingly expanding amounts of padding (also necessary to hide her own physical expansion – she was 7 months’ pregnant when shooting finished) but a more serious visual problem is the vast quantity of latex applied to her face. To modern eyes it looks very artificial and she increasingly resembles Kryten from Red Dwarf albeit with a flowing auburn wig. Francesca Annis does her best but I feel it would have been more appropriate to engage an equally illustrious actress of the correct age and size – something which would be done nowadays.
The series is also noticeably franker than Edward VII in its depiction of sexual matters. We see Lillie and her husband’s wedding night in all its unsatisfying detail. And, unthinkable in 1974, we also see Lillie and a Royal Personage, Prince Louis of Battenberg (the father of her only child) in bed together, undressed! The BBFC have conferred a ‘12’ certificate on the set (only on the fourth disc though, all others are ‘PG’) which I think is only merited by a particularly brutal moment of off-screen domestic violence between Lillie and her then-lover. The sexual content, although more honest than in Edward VII, is not exactly graphic by today’s standards.
The series is presented on 4 discs and issued by Granada’s Cinema Club label. The gatefold packaging is sturdy enough and attractively presented in a slipcase decorated with promotional stills of the principal characters. The set is bare-bones in the extreme. There are no language or subtitle options and no extras of any kind. Each episode has four chapter points but these are not menu-accessible. The only menu is for episode selection.
The original tapes have not been remastered to the same degree as those for Edward VII if they have been remastered at all. The image quality is acceptable for an archive transfer and is mostly stable and consistent and perfectly watchable – better than VHS or cable. However there are some minor problems with tape damage throughout the series. Occasional horizontal crease lines and some image smearing are noticeable and could have been digitally corrected but obviously the release budget didn’t stretch that far. But these instances are very occasional and last only a few seconds and really don’t spoil one’s enjoyment. Compared to Edward VII, the images appear soft and slightly diffuse but I strongly suspect this was deliberate on the directors’ part. It looks like some kind of diffusion filter such as a gauze was placed on the studio cameras, probably to assist in the illusion of a 34-year-old Francesca Annis playing a teenage Lillie. This soft image does sharpen slightly in later episodes as Lillie reaches Ms Annis’ own age – but wasn’t used nearly enough in the last episode to hide the awful makeup job. Mind you, blackout curtain wouldn’t have been enough! Fortunately the sound is clear and consistent throughout.
This set really is for aficionados only. I enjoyed it immensely but have some reservations about the last episode as already stated. However, the notion of doing a 13-hour primetime TV drama centering on the life of one rather unpleasant Victorian woman (no matter how remarkable that life) would be unthinkable these days. So we must preserve and cherish these dramas, with all their faults, because we will never see their like again.