The Ebony Tower Review

First broadcast in December 1984, The Ebony Tower was one of the last and unfortunately lesser television credits of Lord Olivier's twilight years. The play was adapted by John Mortimer from John Fowles' 1974 short novel of the same name. Shot entirely on location in France, the plot is fairly simple. David Williams (Roger Rees), a successful abstract artist and critic, is sent to the south of France to interview elderly bohemian painter Henry Breasley (Lord O) who lives in an eccentric ménage a trois with two young art students - Diana 'The Mouse' (the gorgeous Greta Scacchi) and Anne 'The Alien' (Toyah Willcox!). Williams finds himself sucked into the 'household' largely through his attraction to Diana.

In retrospect, this film must have seemed a good idea at the time. Everything about it was fashionable. John Fowles had a resurgence of popularity in the early 80s and the massive success of the 1981 film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman meant his work was firmly back in producers' crosshairs. John Mortimer was an eminent TV writer at the zenith of his career in 1984. Of the cast, Roger Rees had recently had enormous critical and popular success playing Nicholas Nickleby on stage for the RSC on both sides of the Atlantic and on telly. Greta Schacchi was building a solid career as 'the enigmatic beauty' although her first big success would come in 1987 in White Mischief. Her willingness to slip out of her clothes on the slightest excuse probably helped as well. Toyah at the time had a very high profile as a rock singer although she had had a lot of acting experience including major roles in two Derek Jarman features in the late-70s. As for Olivier, he was a (barely) living legend and although, by this time, he was a very sick old man he had scored a huge personal triumph the year before with his King Lear on ITV.

The story itself is an old literary chestnut - a stranger visits an isolated house and becomes drawn into the resident household's games of political and sexual intrigue. This adaptation is very theatrical and is basically a 3-act play for four characters. The first act could be straight out of a fairytale. The mood is atmospheric and mysterious as David makes his way past the Keep Out notices, through the various obstacles and along shaded wooded avenues until he finally encounters the hidden castle. The atmosphere is helped along by the musical contributions from Richard Rodney Bennett (another heavyweight of the time) channelling Debussy. The second act turns into an extended skirmish as David and Henry debate the nature of Art, in particular Henry's distaste for the abstract, aided and abetted by the two art students. The third act however is pure Brief Encounter (minus Joyce Carey) and it even finishes with an an airport scene. Despite the tonal lurches the direction (Robert Knights) and cinematography are competent and occasionally even stylish. Of the casting, Rees does a good job but is a wee bit too old - he was 40 at the time of filming. Toyah does what she can - she isn't the best actress around and appears to be compensating for that by bringing her stylists with her - her hairstyles and make-up appear ludicrously theatrical and intricate for a simple country sojourn. Greta Scacchi fares best - she had a natural luminous beauty that is well-captured here and is completely believable as the object of both men's infatuations. She hasn't been very visible on our screens for a wee while and recently gave an interview about ageism in the industry and how she doesn't work much anymore because she feels she has lost her looks. She's only 51. A great pity.


Unfortunately the biggest problem with this piece, apart from the slenderness of the story, is also perhaps its biggest draw, Olivier. By the 1950s he had achieved legendary status around the world from his stage and film work. However by the late 60s it had begun to unravel. 1966 saw the birth of his last child which was coincidentally the year his health began to fail seriously. That year alone he received treatment for prostate cancer and pneumonia. From that point on his health was precarious and in order to provide for his young family he basically whored his talents out to film and television, something he freely admitted later on. Some of the work he took on brought him great acclaim but by 1984 he was a very tired and frail old man and it shows here. He spends most of his screen time sitting or lying down and the once-majestic voice is reduced to a dry whisper. However, despite his physical frailty there is still a sense of a strong vital spark within him. His technique and presence are still considerable but they don't sit very well in this piece. What this really needed was someone like Joss Ackland who would have fitted the part much better. But then again consider the perks of the job - who would have turned down filming in a lovely secluded castle in the South of France in summer with two young naked women for company?

Transfer and Sound

As mentioned, this was shot entirely on location on film - 16mm judging by the graininess. The master is in exceptional shape - there is no damage of any kind and colours are good and well-balanced. The direction and camerawork are competent enough but this is very much a respectful chamber approach to Fowles's story with little in the way of stylistic flourishes. The soundtrack is clear and the dialogue is helped by the years of stage experience of both men - Olivier's voice may be a shadow of its once-magnificent self but his diction is still exemplary. One big minus though is some badly-looped dialogue from another character in the final scene which is very jarring.


None at all.


Overall this is a well-made atmospheric attempt to bring a rather slight tale to the screen. Some very big guns are brought to bear on it and the tonal shifts don't quite work but it's certainly watchable, just not exceptional.

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