An eight-part adaptation of two classic novels by Nancy Mitford, this ITV period drama is available now…
Are you something of a toff-porn fan? Been watching Downton Abbey? A bit fed up with its namby-pamby political correctness, its 21st Century sense of balanced representation of life Above and Below Stairs? Would you prefer to see a proper toff’s inside view of the amorality, vices, prejudice and snobbery of the English upper classes in the 1930s? When servants knew their places and didn’t have names, let alone speaking parts? Would you like to wallow in the vacuous spendthrift lives of the upper classes who just didn’t give a damn and squandered their riches on lavish parties at a time when most of the population were scraping a living? Then this is just the tonic for you.
This serial is adapted from Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love which are an insider’s portrait of the English upper classes in the 1930s. How much you enjoy this serial will depend on how much stomach you have for that sort of thing. I haven’t read either book so can only assess this adaptation on its own merits. Mitford was the daughter of Baron Redesdale. She and her five sisters became perhaps the most notorious of all society families in 20th Century Britain (not counting the House of Windsor, of course) with their highly-publicised extreme political affiliations, both left- and right-wing. A great deal has been written about them over the years and, as you can imagine, any fictionalised account of their lives would be as complex as the real stories. And so it is here. To reduce it to simple terms the meandering and complex plot revolves around the aristocratic Radlett and Montdore families and the search for love and happiness in 1930s English society by the daughters, in particular the spoilt vain self-obsessed Linda Radlett (Lucy Gutteridge) and the spoilt vain self-obsessed Polly Montdore (Rosalyn Landor) aided and abetted by numerous interested parties.
Simon Raven, when adapting the two novels for this serial, quite skilfully interwove their plots into a single, elliptical narrative involving a huge ensemble cast. He uses Nancy Mitford’s device of telling the story from the point of view of a detached-but-interested observer to weave a common thread through the plot. This takes the form of the sisters’ orphan cousin Fanny played very skilfully by Isabelle Amyes channelling Celia Johnson from Brief Encounter. In contrast to the glamorous Bright Young Things surrounding her, Fanny is not pretty, perhaps even dowdy, but she is the sensible foil to all the self-indulgent shenanigans going on around her. She has two male cohorts who join her in the Chorus of Reason. The first is her adoptive Uncle Davey, a gentleman of means and preening hypochondriac, played beautifully and very much against type by a blonded-up Michael Williams. The second is Fanny’s friend Lord Merlin, played note-perfectly by John Moffat, an extremely dapper aristo who surrounds himself with handsome young men. Those three characters’ purpose, in various permutations, is basically to point out how ridiculous the Radletts and Montdores are being while also supporting them in every dubious decision they make.
Other mature performers include the star-billed Judi Dench as the Radlett sisters’ mother who really doesn’t have much to do in this other than act as sensible foil to the ludicrously larger-than-life figure of the girls’ father, Matthew. Veering dangerously towards caricature he roars through life bullying everyone around him, hating any notion of Johnny Foreigner or sexual deviancy (he despises Lord Merlin) and is very much master of his domain. Such a character demands a suitably ample performance and Michael Aldridge delivers in every way. He doesn’t so much play the character as tear bleeding chunks out of it and hurl them at the audience. However the standout performance among the senior cast, and it was much-praised at the time, is Vivian Pickles as Lady Montdore. She perfectly embodies the absurd, snobbish old harridan and like all good actors is unafraid to show the more unsympathetic aspects of her character. Throughout this serial, director Donald McWhinnie encourages his actors to perform in an arch heightened manner and at times it’s like watching an old British film of the 30s. Only Isabelle Amyes and Judi Dench are allowed the luxury of performing in anything approaching a naturalistic manner.
Given that this is a portrait of aristocratic life spanning the whole of the 30s and written by an insider, notwithstanding exaggeration for comedy effect there isn’t a single sympathetic character amongst them. Everyone lives in an isolated social bubble, mixing only with their own kind and you would have no idea at all from this that for the majority of the population this was a time of serious hardship. The closest it ever gets to the lower classes is when the empty-headed Linda Radlett moves in with her middle-class communist lover who is slumming it with The Comrades. Every character, excepting perhaps Fanny, is self-serving and manipulative and acts without regard for consequences. As I already mentioned you could look at this as the restorative flipside of a modern serial such as Downton Abbey in which the toffs are intimately involved in their servant’s lives. In Love in a Cold Climate, the servants are lucky to even have names and the story unashamedly revels in concentrating only on the upper classes.
Given the characters obsession with and licentious attitude towards sex, this 1980 serial is a strange mixture of coyness and, to modern eyes, surprising candour. For a story that revolves around sexual desire, there are no sex scenes, which you would expect for an ITV period drama, and yet there are some aspects of sexuality which wouldn’t be depicted in the same way nowadays. The Radlett sisters, from a very early age, appear to be obsessed with sex in all its varieties. There are gay and bisexual characters who are a product of the more liberated attitude of 70s television and who couldn’t have been depicted as they are here any earlier – Lord Merlin and Cedric Hampton are flamboyant queens while the character of the bisexual Boy Dougdale would probably be treated differently nowadays. His particular sexual peccadillos would require him now to be condemned or pitied. In this adaptation his ‘little failings’ are tolerated by everyone and he even achieves some kind of happiness at the end when he falls in love with Cedric.
Transfer and Sound
As was still common at the time this features interiors shot in the studio on video and exteriors shot on location on 16mm film. The master tapes are in pretty good shape but there is a softness to the image throughout which I believe was a stylistic choice of the time as directors attempted to mitigate the abrupt shifts in image quality between video and film. Some of the studio sets are truly cavernous and many even have ceilings(!) Director Donald McWhinnie does a solid job and occasionally pulls off some daring camera work including sweeping crane shots in the studio which are technically audacious and more suited to cinema. Some of the interiors are also quite dimly lit but on the whole, despite the occasional stylistic flourish, this is well made.
As usual with Network there are no subtitles which is a pity on this set as they would have been very useful in deciphering Jean-Pierre Cassel’s mumblings in the last two episodes.
This is, by any standards, a lavish adaptation, playing out over eight 50-minute episodes with a huge cast and does exactly what it says on the tin. What is also quite refreshing is the way in which it revels in its own flippancy. The cast, almost without exception, are excellent and play it for all it’s worth. However if you have a strong aversion, like I do, to wooden squawking child actors I strongly recommend you give the first episode a miss. The plot doesn’t really kick in until episode two anyway by which time the very capable adult actresses have taken over. If memory serves this was quite a big hit when it was first shown in 1980 and blogs suggest it has been high on many people’s DVD wishlists and they will be more than satisfied by this release.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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