1978, 13 episodes, total running time 672 minutes
Directed by John Gorrie, Christopher Hodson, Tony Wharmby
Written by John Gorrie, David Butler, based on James Brough's book "The Prince and the Lily"
Cast: Francesca Annis, Dennis Lill, Anton Rodgers, Peter Egan, Joanna David, Jennie Linden, John Castle, and scores more
Miniseries in the 1970s had at least one thing in common with novels of a century earlier: length. The London Weekend Television production "Lillie" occupied three months of Sundays on "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1979, its 13 episodes emulating for PBS viewers what Victorian-era readers experienced with the eagerly awaited weekly or monthly magazine installments of the novels of Dickens and other productive giants of the age. The maxi-miniseries form thrived into the 1980s with such time-demanding hits as "Brideshead Revisited" and "The Jewel in the Crown," but has disappeared in recent years ("The Forsyte Saga" was a happy exception), the victim of skittish network programmers who fear committing many weeks to a big production that may not instantly score huge ratings (or pledge drive dollars).
But Acorn Media has helped keep the maxi-mini alive (at least those of the past) by issuing many "Masterpiece Theatre" offerings. "Lillie" is a lavish costume drama about the life of Lillie Langtry, the renowned beauty, actress, promotional genius and mistress to princes and kings of the late Victorian and Edwardian ages. Francesca Annis, who was best known at the time for her naked Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski's 1971 "Macbeth" and for the 1975 BBC mini of "Madame Bovary," has her signature role here -- a real actor's showcase in which she ages from 15 to 75.
Emilie Le Breton is a beautiful, Titian-haired tomboy living on the Channel Island of Jersey, the only daughter among seven children of a strict clergyman. She comes to the attention of various older suitors, who are shocked to learn she's just 15. (So are we; Annis was 34 during filming.) Once she's legal -- and has grown bored with life on Jersey -- she marries a gentleman with money, Edward Langtry (Anton Rodgers), and coaxes him to move to London. Once in the exciting metropolis, her ambition runs free and she's quickly moving in both high society and bohemian circles, equally at ease with the likes of Prince Leopold of Austria as she is in the salons of beauty-appreciating artists like Whistler and Millais. No less a figure than Oscar Wilde (Peter Egan) becomes her closest friend.
But the boorish Edward Langtry proves to be a ne'er-do-well who has frittered away his fortune, and Lillie embarks on a career as actress, celebrity and unapologetic mistress to powerful men. Her two great loves are Bertie (Dennis Lill), the son of Queen Victoria and the future King Edward VII, and, much later, his nephew Prince Louis of Battenberg (John Castle), who fathers her only child, Jeanne (played as an adult in later episodes by Joanna David). Over the course of the 13 episodes, Lillie endures the death of friends and family, falls out with others (including her daughter when she learns that Langtry is not her father), has acting triumphs in both London and the United States, becomes one of the first modern celebrities (she sells her image to advertise products like Pears' Soap), and marries for the second time, to another pompous loser, Sir Hugo de Bath (James Warwick); they maintain what would today be called an open marriage.
The drama, in typical British TV practice of the day, was written and directed by a variety of hands, and while it is well-acted and handsomely mounted, it suffers from having no single overriding artistic vision or voice. Trying to present a person's entire life on screen, the filmmakers go for an almost journalistic ticking off of events -- there are none of the character revelations or the connecting of seemingly unrelated plot threads that mark great drama and fiction. One thing happens to Lillie, then something else, then something else; years pass, characters disappear, new ones are introduced; men's hair gets grayer, the layers of fat makeup on Annis' neck get thicker. World War I begins and ends, but it has no effect on the characters; it's just there to let us know what year we've reached. The Victorian masters knew they had to give readers who'd waded through six hundred pages something on that last one that brought the whole thing together. "Lillie" is poignant to a degree but it gives us a magnificent life mundanely.
"Lillie" was made in 1978 in Britain, which should tell experienced viewers what to expect: a virtual stage play shot on video (except for rare outdoor scenes, which were captured on grainy 16 mm film). The original 4:3 full frame aspect ratio is preserved on Acorn's DVD set. Given those limitations, the 13-hour series holds up well visually, with that live soap opera-like look still crisp and fresh. However, there are a few negligible dropouts in the early going, presumably due to magnetic deterioration on the original tapes, and there are some shimmering effects around the edges of bodies in motion. The colors are reasonably vivid and true, though the English Channel takes on a curious bright shade of teal in one seaside scene.
The '70s sound has been beefed up with Dolby Digital and is unobtrusively true, clear and evenly distributed; you won't hear slamming doors far to the sides of the TV or any other such startling effects.
The 13 episodes are spread over four single-sided discs, which are in slim packs encased in a colorful cardboard sleeve. The liners for each disc give brief plot descriptions.
The still-frame menus offer episode and scene selection; there are six chapters for each 52-minute episode.
We never hope for many extras from Acorn, and this set lives down to expectations. There's a two-sided paper insert giving a brief bio of Lillie Langtry and, on Disc I, a few screens worth of filmographies covering the lead actors.
An ongoing pet peeve: I realize there are rights issues involved, but can't everyone work out a way to put Alistair Cooke's original program intros onto all these classic "Masterpiece Theatre" series? It's just not right without him.
Devoted fans of "Masterpiece Theatre" have another title from the series' glory years to add to their collection. "Lillie," a biographical drama about a now nearly forgotten supercelebrity of a century ago, is the sort of miniseries that would never get made today. It's very long, extremely un-action-packed and more than a little stuffy. But Francesca Annis is impressive in a grande dame sort of way as the actress and horse-and-carriage-stopping beauty Lillie Langtry. Acorn Media's four-disc set offers little besides the series itself, but that's probably enough to satisfy fans.