Tag Archives: Acorn Video

An Aus-some new detective series

When it comes to period murder mysteries, you might think that the Brits have pretty much milked that popular genre to death. Leave it to the Aussies, though, to come up with something delightfully different in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an instantly addictive new (to the United States) series centering around a vivacious young woman who is equal parts jazz baby and resourceful sleuth. Acorn Video this week released season one, encompassing 13 spirited episodes (on four DVD or Blu-ray discs) drenched in period detail.
Adapted from a popular series of detective novels by Australian writer Kerry Greenwood, the series is set in 1928 Melbourne, where wealthy Phryne (pronounced “FRY-nee”) Fisher (newcomer Essie Smith), a decidedly free-thinking 28-year-old, investigates dastardly doings, including one that occurred in her childhood and still haunts her. The richly drawn cast of characters also include Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), Phryne’s devoted housekeeper and occasional sidekick, and her bashful cop boyfriend, Hugh Collins (Hugh Johnstone-Burke), as well as handsome police detective John “Jack” Robinson (Nathan Page), who begins to strike some romantic sparks with Phryne as the season progresses. Several episodes also feature the great British comedy actress Miriam Margolyes in a juicy turn as Phryne’s disapproving Aunt Prudence.
Production values are absolutely first-rate (Phryne’s dazzling Jazz Age costumes alone are worth checking out), and the copious behind-the-scenes featurettes in both formats include comments by Greenwood, Phryne’s creator, who is visibly over the moon at the care the creative team has lavished on the world she has created. If you’re a fan of witty, well-written period mysteries, I cannot recommend this set highly enough.
Other new releases from Acorn include:
No Job for a Lady, making its North American DVD debut in a three-disc set that includes all 18 episodes from its original UK run from 1990-92. Penelope Keith, a familiar face to PBS viewers from her work in such popular Britcoms as To the Manor Born and Good Neighbors, stars as Jean Price, who is somewhat dismayed to discover how lunatic the political world is after she is elected a Member of Parliament for the left-wing Labour Party. The solid supporting cast includes the wonderful Paul Young as Jean’s long-suffering Scottish officemate Ken Miller and George Baker as cartoonish conservative Godfrey Eagen, Jean’s relentlessly cheerful Tory nemesis. If you enjoyed Yes, Prime Minister, you’re sure to enjoy this clever comedy. No noteworthy extras, but all episodes are closed-captioned for the hearing impaired, as are all the other titles in today’s column.
Chance in a Million, which ran in Great Britain during the mid-1980s, was created as a vehicle for Simon Callow, who had just scored a stunning London stage success in the title role of Peter Shaffer’s then-new play Amadeus. Here he plays Tom Chance, a man cursed by fate and plagued by circumstance at every turn in his life. The performances strike me as a little too stylized and exaggerated for modern tastes, but it’s fun to watch Callow when he was just starting out. Future Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) also stars as Tom’s chirpy girlfriend in this three-DVD set, which includes all 18 episodes, an alternate pilot episode and four episode commentaries by Callow and the two scriptwriters for the show.
I’ve never before come across A Mind to Kill, which aired in the UK (in both English and Welsh versions, mind you) from 1994 to 2004 and has gone on to become widely syndicated around the world, although frankly I’m hard pressed to understand why. Philip Madoc stars as Welsh detective Noel Bain, but neither he nor his character is particularly galvanizing (the supporting players are far more interesting, especially Ffion Wilkins, who plays Noel’s headstrong daughter, Hannah). Acorn’s 11-DVD set includes all 21 feature-length mysteries that aired during the show’s run, as well as a clip from the Welsh-language version of the series. If you enjoy playing “find that star of tomorrow,” guest stars include a pre-Horatio Hornblower Ioan Gruffudd and Archie Panjabi long before she landed her Emmy-winning role as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.

The ‘Prime’ of Miss Geraldine McEwan

Mention The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to most people and their minds inevitably will go to the 1969 film adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel that won Maggie Smith a richly deserved Academy Award as best actress. At the time, Smith’s win was considered something of an Oscar upset – her competition included such heavy hitters as Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Genevieve Bujold in the lavish period drama Anne of the Thousand Days – but her performance as an Edinburgh schoolteacher whose mantra was “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” has stood the test of time. By turns funny, imperious and eccentric, Smith’s Jean Brodie is a fascinating portrayal of a mercurial character, and her climactic horrified outrage when she discovers she has been betrayed by a favorite student (Pamela Franklin) is harrowing even today.
For all the acclaim Smith reaped, however, novelist Sparks, who created the character based on a real teacher she had met as a young student at an Edinburgh school, always considered another artist to have turned in the quintessential turn as Jean Brodie: Geraldine McEwan, the endearing British actress who is best known to most American viewers today for her recent work as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. In 1978, McEwan gave an unforgettable portrayal of Miss Brodie in a seven-part miniseries adaptation for Scottish TV, a delightful production that gets its belated North American DVD release this week on Acorn Video.
With so much more running time available, the miniseries is able to explore Miss Brodie and her world far more thoroughly than the 1969 feature film did. Indeed, the first episode takes place almost entirely in Newcastle, England, showing the events and acquaintances that helped lead Jean back to her hometown and a new position at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, where the production was filmed on location. Her young charges also get much more screen time revealing their relationships with family members and friends away from school.
In terms of her approach to the character, McEwan’s performance is theatrical and delightfully mannered (in the best possible sense of that word), yet sensibly scaled down for the small screen compared to Smith’s heaven-storming movie turn. McEwan’s Brodie is, in her way, just as misguided and quirky as Smith’s was, yet you sense a genuine warmth and concern for her “little girls,” as she calls them.
One major caveat: While the Smith movie, like Spark’s novel, encompasses several years, this miniseries covers only the first few months of Miss Brodie’s tenure, so the explosive latter scenes of the movie involving her romantic triangle with art teacher Teddy Lloyd (played here by John Castle from The Lion in Winter) and Sandy, a student at the school, are nowhere to be found. Indeed, while the miniseries ends with a flirtation between Jean and Teddy, the conclusion is otherwise so uneventful that I can’t help suspecting the producers had hoped (unsuccessfully) to get an order for additional episodes.
If there’s room for only one The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in your DVD collection, I suppose Smith’s 1969 film should take pride of place, since it’s an absolutely staggering star turn.
Yet this McEwan miniseries, a three-DVD set that includes English subtitles and a short interview with Spark, is very rewarding as well. When I had the immense pleasure of chatting with McEwan a few years ago in connection with her work as Marple, she confided that the unavailability of her Jean Brodie on DVD was a sad disappointment to her, so I’m very glad Acorn Video has finally remedied that oversight. And if this set encourages you to explore this delightful actress’s work further, you’ll find her Marple episodes as well as her hilarious comic turn with Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne in the incomparable Mapp & Lucia both readily available on DVD from the same label.
As Miss Brodie would say: “Forsooth!”