We’re all familiar with Winston but how many of us know much about The First Churchills? Well for those who don’t know, Britain’s war-time PM traced his lineage back to the court of King Charles II, and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough AKA The First Churchills. The cigar smoking nemesis of the Nazis wrote a biography of his aristocratic ancestors and in 1969 the BBC dramatized the story. The 12 part series was an instant success. Drama starved executives on the other side of the pond soon snapped it up and began airing it on PBS in a new time slot called Masterpiece Theatre. Yes British TV watchers, The First Churchills isn’t just about English history it is also a landmark series in the British invasion of American networks. On 4 June, Acorn Media are reviving this lost classic on DVD.
Three-time Emmy winner Susan Hampshire plays Winston’s great (several times removed) grandmother – Sarah Churchill while X-Files villain John Neville plays her beau. The cast also includes British TV veterans such as Margaret Tyzack (I Claudius) and Richard Warwick (Please Sir). The producer was Donald Wilson who is best known as the man behind the BBC’s iconic 1967 version of The Forsyte Saga starring Kenneth More.
OK so, the BBC have never been known for lavishing vast sums of money on costumes and make-up let alone sets. The production values aren’t quite at the level of Downton Abbey but classics like this are all about acting and storylines rather than the aesthetics. The narrative is compelling. The sincere romance involving the Churchills is juxtaposed against the amoral happenings in the King’s court. The costumes are as colorful as the characters and the location shots have a Poldark like quality.
For true Masterpiece fans, watching this is a bit like watching the first William Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who. It is a world away from the shows you currently watch but a combination of raw quality and curiosity makes it much watch TV. The 552 minute set includes an interview with Susan Hampshire and costs $59.99. (Continued below)
Acorn’s 4 June line-up also includes Vexed, Series 2. This popular crime drama stars Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) and Mi5 actress Miranda Raison. The duo play squabbling coppers constantly trying to out-do one another while solving crimes in the British capital. Stephens’ character Jack Armstrong is a bit of a rogue. He is a Men Behaving Badly style Jack the lad. Lazy, full of himself and chauvinistic. DI Georgina Dixon is clever, witty, and career focused. They are not exactly a match made in Heaven but despite their differences there is an underlying sexual tension that gives the show an extra edge.
Vexed isn’t a true crime drama but neither is it a comedy. It is one of those crossbreeds like Hustle or Life on Mars. The crimes are often gruesome but the scenarios are far fetched e.g. Georgina goes undercover to investigate a murder on a cookery show. It is a high quality post Mary Whitehouse era British dramedy.
Stephens is a show stopper in his own right while Raison is a solid performer. Nick Dunning (Ann Boleyn’s dodgy Dad in the Tudors) puts in a good performance as the latter’s slimeball of a Dad. Rory Kinnear was one of the stars of series one but he opted not to appear in series two. Surprisingly, he wasn’t missed much as Raison, Stephens and Dunning more than compensated for his absence in both the straight scenes and the funny ones.
Vexed, Series 2 is available as a two disc set. The total running time is 365 minutes and the purchase price if $49.99. I enjoyed it and I plan to watch it again. It isn’t really racy but it has enough saucy moments to mean that it is not one for the kids to watch. (Continued below)
David Tennant recently made his triumphant return to TV in the hit drama The Politician’s Husband. The political drama received rave reviews but in truth it was merely a more cliched, less polished rehash of the earlier and much better written The Politician’s Wife. This 1995 modern day classic is coming to Acorn DVD on 4 June and it is the pick of the month’s British TV releases.
Juliet Stevenson (Accused) plays the title character – a publicly humbled wife who secretly plots her husband’s downfall. Stevenson is one of Britain’s best actresses and the cleverly written script enables her to showcase her talents. She can convey 20 different emotions in a 30 second segment and keep you enthralled every step of the way. Many actors would find themselves trailing in her wake but Trevor Eve is well cast as her husband and frankly he’s one of the few actors of her generation who can give her a run for her money. The talented duo’s onscreen marriage is thrown into chaos when Duncan (Eve) decides to have a dalliance with a prostitute played by Hollywood actress Minnie Driver. Looking at the cast list, it is fair to say the producers had the kind of budget that Donald Wilson and the Churchill crowd could only dream about.
I can’t say much more about the story without ruining it for prospective viewers. What I will say is that it costs just $29.99 and has a running time of over three hours. In my view, it is worth every penny and is comparable with dramas such as Injustice and even State of Play. If I could only watch one DVD this month it would be this one.