Anglo Saxon Attitudes' DVD box advertises it as a "biting satire." Now British humor can often run so dry as to be positively Saharan, and while this 1992 miniseries based on an Angus Wilson novel of some repute is certainly trenchant and full of batty characters doing some very peculiar things, I personally found it less outright satiric than incredibly insightful as it explores various levels of deception, whether aimed outward toward others or kept to interior worlds. And while satiric elements certainly come to the fore in the party from hell sequence that dominates the third and final episode, I think you'll do better if you approach Anglo Saxon Attitudes as a very observant character study focusing on aging historian Gerald Middleton, who could be a poster child for Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken."
The three episode miniseries jumps back and forth in time (actually a bit confusing in the opening sequences until it's made clear we're dealing with Middleton at various times in his life), but tends early on to balance its attention between a beautiful day in 1912, when a young Middleton meets Dollie, the woman who will haunt his life forever, at exactly the same moment that a medieval grave of an early Christian Bishop is unearthed on the grounds of the mansion that Middleton is visiting, as well as events some 40 years later, when Middleton finds himself surrounded by many metaphorical chickens coming home to roost. In the 1912 timeline, when the casket is pried apart, the upper crust assemblage is somewhat shocked to find a rather graphic male fertility idol clutched in the Bishop's skeletal remains. Cutting back and forth to Middleton's late life reveals that this exacavation, nicknamed Melpham after the grounds where it was found, has sparked a whole reexamination of early British Christian history and led to something of a cottage industry for historians eager to link pagan practices with those of the early Church. Middleton's (late life) nomination to edit Oxford's new Medieval History compendium leads him to reexamine the Melpham Idol, as its called, leaving him awash in a sea of memory, most intriguingly the admission of his lifelong friend Gilbert Stokesay (son of Melpham's owner and Dollie's soon to be husband) that Gilbert planted the idol to embarrass his father. This sets Middleton out on a detective quest to uncover the truth, which actually takes a back seat for most of the ensuing drama, as Middleton's investigations actually bring him in touch with long repressed feelings about his own life and life choices.
While this may sound laborious, it's actually surprisingly visceral, helmed by an absolutely knockout performance by Richard Johnson as the elderly Middleton. Slowly coming to realize how distant and cold he's been to his estranged wife and children, while watching his children make some of the same mistakes he has earlier in his own life, Johnson evokes wave after wave of beautifully nuanced recognition, always with that stiff British upper lip, that history cannot be changed. Or maybe it can--as the somewhat reconciled ending points out on a number of levels. I suppose some can see some extremely black comedy at work here in the trail of death and destruction that Middleton leaves in the wake of his detective work, but it's not really played for laughs on any level and is actually shocking more often than not.
There are a host of very fine supporting performances in this piece, chiefly Elizabeth Spriggs as Middleton's dotty Danish wife Inge (whom he marries despite loving Dollie), a smug and subtly hilarious Simon Chandler as Middleton's second son John, a television muckraker in the Edward R. Murrow tradition who happens to be hiding a homosexual lifestyle, and especially Tara Fitzgerald, equally fetching and tragic as the young Dollie. (Look for both a smarmy Daniel Craig as Gilbert Stokesay and a very young, and still quite overweight, Kate Winslet in a small supporting role in the third episode). What is also of some note in this well-adapted piece (by Andrew Davies, whom some astute credits-readers will recognize as the screenwriter of the Bridget Jones features) is the interwoven strands of relationships that spill out intergenerationally and are only slowly revealed throughout the series' three episodes. While not quite at the "shock and awe" level of television mainstay Lost, they nonetheless provide a continuing amount of surprise as the viewer slowly realizes someone seen in passing in the flashback sequences actually has great importance in "current time."
There are a few qualms with the many subplots that dot the landscape here. While John's unfortunate dance with danger vis a vis his "alternative lifestyle" with a lower class thief named Larrie is dealt with tragically (some would say melodramatically), there's virtually no wrapup for another despicable character, a virtual mirror image of Larrie named Yves, who actually contributes to the death of a major supporting character. And though Gerald and Dollie's late in life reconciliation is brought to a neat little close (Dollie in this timeframe nicely portrayed by the inimitable Dorothy Tutin), there are still some dangling questions left hanging about Gerald's "real" family and the relationships therein.
Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a very hard piece to classify--part Remembrance of Things Past, part detective story, part elegy to a life seeking reconciliation, it's unusually touching and will be appreciated by those who don't need slam bang action sequences and thrilling denouements to make their viewing experiences satisfactory.