Tag Archives: Geraldine McEwan

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!”