Ambitious, frequently amusing...but oftentimes hazy British serial concerning Trollope's "Upper Ten Hundred," from the "golden age" of that television form. Acorn Media and the BBC have released The Pallisers: 40th Anniversary Edition, an 8-disc, 26-episode collection of the 1974 BBC TV serial ("miniseries" here in the States), based on the novels by Anthony Trollope, adapted by Simon Raven, and starring a remarkable cast of U.K. performers: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Barbara Murray, Moray Watson, Donald Pickering, Roger Livesey, Donal McCann, Roland Culver, Anna Massey, Sarah Badel, Derek Godfrey, John Hallam, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Andrews, Caroline Mortimer, Jeremy Irons, Gary Watson, Anna Carteret, Peter Sallis, Fabia Drake, and Sonie Dresdel, just to name a few. An expensive endeavor back in 1974 (at least by British TV standards), The Pallisers's reception was marred by circumstances beyond its control (labor disputes and energy cutbacks in England at the time disrupted its production and transmission), resulting, in part, in The Pallisers failing to achieve the lasting critical and popular legacy of its predecessor and main inspiration, The Forsyte Saga. Seen today, The Pallisers' relatively minor status may be credited more to some unsuccessful casting choices and a diffused central story arc, rather than the "Three Day Week," but there's no denying that this serial gives fans of vintage U.K. long-form drama the conventions they require: often superlative acting, frequently engaging, witty scripting, and an admirable attention to historical detail. Just one or two extras here may denote belief on Acorn's part, as well, that The Pallisers isn't as well known as its more iconic U.K. serial contemporaries.
Clocking in at over 21 and a half hours (the best way to watch it is three episodes a night, straight through--any more in one sitting is counterproductive), it's not in the scope of this review to thoroughly summarize everything that's going on The Pallisers...nor will I subsequently review and detail each episode below (did you hear that? That was a collective heaving sigh of relief from my 9 regular readers). So just a (relatively) quick overview of the main action is appropriate. Victorian England, the middle 1860s. At a croquet and champagne lawn party, England's wealthiest land owner, the Duke of Omnium (thus, you can immediately see Trollope's drollery), high atop a hill, dozes on his throne as various aristocrats, politicians, and powerful merchants mingle below. His nephew, House of Commons plodder Plantagenet Palliser (Philip Latham), catches the Duke's watchful, disapproving eye as "Planty" makes obvious his dry, pedestrian interest in the married Lady Dumbello (Rachel Herbert). Gossipy, amoral old crows Countess of Midlothian (Fabia Drake) and Marchioness of Auld Reekie (Sonia Dresdel) experience equal displeasure at the sight of the Countess' fabulous wealthy niece, the vivacious Lady Glencora M'Cluskie (Susan Hampshire), making a fool of herself with handsome nobody Burgo Fitzgerald (Barry Justice). Aware also of what is going on with Planty, the old biddies sense an opportunity at fortuitous matrimonial matchmaking, which receives the Duke's imperious blessing: the dull, boring Planty and the free-spirited, flirtatious Glencora, shall be spliced. Both victims dread the union, but both cave to the social, political, and monetary pressures that are visited upon them when they both initially balk at the idea. Married and desperately unhappy, it will take Glencora quite a number of years to work out a respectful, mutually agreeable relationship with the unromantic, politics-obsessed Planty, who in turn, will eventually realize--too late--how much good the savvy Glencora has done for his career and personal life.
Smart, charming Irish barrister Phineas Finn (Donal McCann) finds his path to political high office no less rocky. Elected to Parliament, Finn makes a splash with the ladies of London society, while the predominantly English members of his Liberal Party ignore his Irish heritage (to his face) while sizing him up as a potential strong ally within the House. In love first with Lady Laura Standish (Anna Massey), impoverished Finn's romance is squelched by Laura's money woes; she marries wealthy Scotsman Robert Kennedy (Derek Godfrey) instead. Hoping to erase the stigma of an ill-advised debt he has incurred, the opportunistic Finn then hopes to bag rich, beautiful Violet Effingham (Mel Martin), another poor choice when Violet eventually succumbs to the ferocious stalking of Laura's wildman brother, Lord Chiltern (John Hallam). Rescue in the form of money, first for the debt and then later for financing his perilous second term, could have come from wealthy German Jew Madame Max Goesler (Barbara Murray), who enjoys a "special" friendship with the besotted Duke of Omnium, and who is ready to give her love to Finn. However, a dalliance with a girl back in Ireland unexpectedly precludes this aid. Having made enemies of quite-mad Robert Kennedy, who blames Finn for his loveless marriage to Laura, as well as Bonteen (Peter Sallis), the new Liberal expert in financial affairs who views Finn's return to politics with suspicion and contempt, Finn's future hangs in the balance when Bonteen is killed. Much later, Finn will have a chance to repay Planty's kindness during these trying times, as Planty once again comes close to reaching the pinnacle of power in Britain's Parliament, as his and Glencora's children grow older into a society subtly changed from the one their parents first knew.
I suppose with the inexplicable, faddish success of Downton Abbey, we'll be seeing more of these vintage serials rushed out onto DVD to soak up some of that hit's reflective gravy. I've read about The Pallisers in several of my television books, but if I watched this when it premiered on PBS back in 1977 (HBO actually showed it first here in the States in 1975; by the way, the John Gielgud intros that preceded the U.S. broadcasts are not included on this set), it didn't stay in my memory as did iconic titles like The Forsyte Saga, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Brideshead Revisited, and of course, Upstairs, Downstairs (yes, technically a series, not a serial...but close enough). According to what I've read about The Pallisers, including an informative little booklet added to this DVD release, author and marvelous cad Simon Raven (I recommend anything you can find from this delightful writer; he's been a favorite since I read his hilarious first novel, An Inch of Fortune back when it was "new" in 1980), having successfully adapted Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point for the BBC in 1967, was asked if he had any other projects in mind, to which Raven suggested Anthony Trollope's "political novels" series, unofficially known as "The Parliamentary Novels" or more commonly, "The Palliser Novels." Contracts were signed in 1969--during the flush of serial The Forsyte Saga's tremendous popular and critical success--and after four years of condensing and rearranging (and outright invention) of Trollope's six novels in the series, Raven delivered a script. Premiering in the U.K. in January, 1974, The Pallisers, however, had the unlucky misfortune to come out during a particularly difficult economic time in England's modern history, when, among other measures, the Conservative Government, battling a coal miners' strike, implemented restrictions on the usage of electricity (including the infamous "Three-Day Week"), many of which continued up until the fall of 1974. Television production was affected by these restrictions, with the expensive, long-form The Pallisers suffering from production delays, transmission conflicts (it was supposed to end in June), and finally a disastrous five month interval before the final two episodes of the serial were broadcast in the fall (initial ratings, which apparently were below expectations, suffered even further under this deathblow programming move).
Ignorant of the number of times The Pallisers has been repeated in the U.K. (and thus unable to guess at its overall popularity among U.K. viewers), I can only speculate on why, watching it today, iThe Pallisers doesn't seem to resonate with quite the same level of intensity that one experiences with its better-known contemporaries. Even at a more-than-generous 1300 minutes running time, the level of necessary condensing and elimination of characters and events--while inventing new ones to make the material more "TV friendly"--may have been too much to do Trollope justice. Raven, whose own stated authorial aims were right in line with Trollope's (making money while amusing oneself), certainly keeps his pithy, often wicked humor on display, particularly in the form of "Dolly" Longstaffe, a sort of Greek chorus who pops in now and then to comment on the story and characters, played to utter perfection by the wonderfully snotty Donald Pickering (when his sole, arch complaint at Glencora's first important party is that there's "rather too much cake," I hit the floor). Amusing lines are frequent, such as the Duke's filthy command that if Glencora must cheat on Planty, let her "make a mess from time to time...in the shrubbery, where no one can see her, and not on the dining-room carpet," (I don't know if that's Trollope or Raven, but it's a classic), while Raven's sense of soap opera pacing--not meant as a pejorative at all, as anyone who's read similar reviews of mine can attest--is sure. However, Trollope's forte of presenting detailed views of the day-to-day occurrences of upper class and aristocratic Victorians necessarily suffers from the editing process here. As for any overall theme to the material, watching The Pallisers, one begins to suspect that aside from the obvious observations about the Victorian hypocrisies of the various characters, The Pallisers doesn't have much else on its mind. Individual parts work, but the sum total seems vaguely wanting
A major cause for that foggy feeling in The Pallisers' spine comes from a rather alarming number of the lead performances. Raven freely admitted that he put the Glencora/Planty romance front and center throughout the serial's 26 episodes to provide a romantic, heroic anchor for the audience--something Trollope did not do in his books ("A television serial needs a hero and heroine, and at the expense perhaps of Trollope's own plan, I have blown them up to give them more lasting significance than he indicated," Raven was quoted). While you can certainly argue that these two mismatched characters were never intended to fulfill such a role and thus they're unsuited to provide a linch pin for the audience's expectations (particularly dry, dusty Planty, with his constant, scintillating worry over a new coinage system in Britain), it's difficult to know where to place the blame: at the characters' feet, or at the performers who try to breathe life into them. There's an old stage adage that states a boring character can and should still be interesting if the actor's doing his job right, but unfortunately, one can't say that for pro Philip Latham, who fails completely to make Planty come alive for us. So thorough is Latham in getting across the hideously dull, judgmental aspects of this arid character, we wind up simply not caring what happens to Planty at all--his dour character simply can't "carry" this serial (his turn here reminded me of another disagreeable character asked to carry a "big" project--Max Von Sydow's narrow-minded missionary in Hawaii--which was sabotaged by a too-authentic turn that thoroughly alienated the audience). Susan Hampshire, the queen of these vintage U.K. serials, is better at getting across the flightier, romantic stirrings of Glencora, but it hardly comes across as a sympathetic take on the character, playing instead as sharp and brittle and faintly hysterical at times. She quickly becomes "too much," too quickly. Technically it seems right...but we should warm to the character despite her faults, an emotion which the chilly Hampshire fails to engender. Famed Irish actor Donal McCann is even worse, in a way, coming across as colorless and distracted in a role that should have conveyed thwarted passion and fiery indignation. Where is any of that here, in his too-quiet, too-controlled turn? Aren't we supposed to be pulling for these main characters? Shouldn't we come to view their trials and tribulations as our own? Shouldn't we be made to understand their problems, while rooting for them to overcome them...or at least to understand them better? Unfortunately, we just...don't with these three critically important performances.
Fortunately, in addition to the amusing moments that pop up with dependable regularity in Raven's script, there are plenty of other compensations throughout The Pallisers, particularly when that supporting cast of pros gets a chance to shine. I've already mentioned Pickering, but giving him a run for his money in terms of eliciting out-loud guffaws is Sarah Badel as the delightfully screwball romantic Lizzie Eustace, an inveterate liar and thief with a healthy sexual appetite. When Badel is shown exclaiming poetry on a windswept lakeshore, or enthusiastically plucking a harp, or greedily clutching at her latest male knight savior, she's a scream (her Eustace Diamonds episodes could have survived as stand-alone "plays" outside the serial format). Anna Massey brings her usual quiet intensity to the role of put-upon Lady Laura Kennedy, while Fabia Drake and Sonia Dresdel are wonderfully revolting as the old crows bent on maintaining their social power (when Drake and Dresdel insinuate that Hampshire can get her sexual pleasures outside of her proposed marriage, leaning in on her and literally licking their chops, it's a marvelously grotesque moment). Even if he doesn't have much to do, it's always a pleasure to hear that raspy voice of Roger Livesey, here playing an easy-going aristocrat, while Derek Jacobi is agreeably terrified as a timid member of Parliament, browbeaten by his overbearing sisters. Best of all, though, and the serial's true anchor (for my tastes, at least), is Roland Culver's Duke of Omnium, an unrepentant idler who lives only for pleasure and the exercise of his power in keeping the status quo. Culver has so many delicious moments here--looking like he's going to be sick when Drake and Dresdel are announced to him; winking slyly at a woman during Hampshire's and Latham's wedding; suggestively offering, "I'd like to see you...wielding the mallet," to Murray during a croquet game--that once he exits the serial at about the 2/3s mark, I admittedly lost interest in the remaining subplots involving Finn's murder trial and the ultimate fate of Glencora and her children. When Culver, recovering from a stroke, sits on his bed and remembers to feign weakness, like a little boy, so his pretty nurse will grab his legs to put him to bed, it's a delightfully funny moment, which the actor isn't afraid to broaden when he gorps and smiles broadly at the nurse's rear end as she struggles over his lap. Of all the characters in The Pallisers, I suspect his is the one scripter Raven sympathized with and liked the best (after all, the Duke's behavior wasn't too far off the mark from Raven's own personal life), and while that, with the essential aid of Culver's marvelous turn, is fine for this supporting character, the serial doesn't revolve around him, but rather Glencora and Planty, who are, unfortunately, just not as interesting.
Here are the 26 episodes, as described on the on-screen menus, for the 8-disc collection, The Pallisers: 40th Anniversary Collection:
PART TWENTY ONE
PART TWENTY TWO
PART TWENTY THREE
PART TWENTY FOUR
PART TWENTY FIVE
PART TWENTY SIX
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.