Before cable established standards for trenchant amorality with such series as The Sopranos, Damages, Dexter, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, the BBC cornered the market decades earlier. Yes, there are the excellent soapers, like the superior b&w Forsyte Saga (1967) that reputedly created an adult audience for Public Broadcasting in the States. But far beyond the tidy costume dramas that one associated with Merchant/ Ivory and perhaps Barbara Cartland, my two favorites are wicked fun.
When I read amateur critiques on amazon.com or IMDb of British TV serials made in the 1970s and 1980s, younger viewers often comment on the "dated" production values that might dissuade some audiences. By this they mean scenes on stagey sets rather than opened up into on-location action sequences, and photographed performances as in traditional soap operas rather than flights of flashy editing in color rather than in black and white.
I suspect my generation accepts such differences as assets rather than as detriments, much as we who grew up when most motion pictures were photographed in black and white appreciate the aesthetics of that mode of presentation. For the focus of those "dated" BBC dramas remains the performances by superb actors, abetted and sustained by the sense that we are indeed witnessing the forcefulness of a staged drama. And in the cases of I, Claudius and Cousin Bette we're treated to high drama at its finest and most invigorating.
Derek Jacobi with Tyzack
(Cold Mom But the One Virtuous Roman)
The Great Tyzack's Meatiest Role
Both literature-based productions feature title characters who are severely damaged. Claudius stammers, limps, and is ridiculed as an imbecile; Bette is the poor country cousin whose resentment of her better-off, dimly bourgeois relatives curdles into cagey, relentless vengeance. Both characters use the prejudices of others as a cloaking device, in societies of carnal corruption and hypocrisy. Our pleasure lies in the depiction of such societies, in the triumphs of the title characters, and in the phenomenal performances of tremendously talented casts.
I, Claudius (1976
Cousin Bette (1971)
Decades later, we now especially marvel at the titilating luridness of I, Claudius whose most shocking shots and sequences have long been excised by concerned censors. A documentary on the production, below, reveals that one such "cut" occurred even before the program was originally aired--that of insane Caligula's sister (who he'd impregnated, then aborted and eaten their unborn child), bound and dissembowled. Chalk one up for the censors, perhaps, in that instance, but the sad fact remains that most DVD copies of the 1976 serial have deleted a number of other depraved tidbits.
Documentary on the Phenomenon/a of I, Claudius
And forty-plus years hence, we now must marvel not just at Margaret Tyzack's astonishing performance in the title role of Cousin Bette, but also that of a buxom prostitute played by a very young Helen Mirren.
Helen Mirren (!) 40+ Years Ago
(with Future "Dr. Who" Colin Baker)
"Country Cousin" Bette Uses a Seductress (Mirren)
to Destroy the Bourgeois Family She Despises http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwqYOIS6iQQ
For me, the greatest satisfaction of this serial is in its final moments, when a physically paralyzed Bette nevertheless manages one final act of vengeful skullduggery.
Two caveats, however: avoid at all costs the 1998 movie version of Cousin Bette, starring the far too attractive Jessica Lange, and resist any temptation to read a synopsis of the story. The BBC version doesn't follow Balzac's plot in the retribution meted out to Mirren's character, but more importantly the great fun of watching the televised version is to treasure each new jolt of nasty doings.
So far, this multi-part essay has discussed the best "toga" movies (both CGI and non-CGI varieties), and the most satisfyingly wicked BBC costume epics.
Next up: "Costumed Social Climbers at the Heart of European History" and "Sumptuous Seductions via B&W and Color Cinematography."