Tag Archives: Maggie Smith

PBS delivers a valentine from London’s National Theatre

Judi Dench performs 'Send in the Clowns.'

Judi Dench performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ during ‘ National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage,’ tonight on ‘Great Performances.’

If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Rosenkrantz in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’

Avast-ly entertaining Black Sails on Starz

'Black Sails' premieres tonight on Starz.

Tom Hopper, Toby Stephens, Mark Ryan and Luke Arnold (from left) star in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.

Black Sails, the lavish new pirate adventure series premiering tonight on Starz, freely blends actual historical characters (like pirate queen Anne Bonny) with newly created fictional characters to present a raucous, action-packed look at life in and around Nassau, Bahamas, circa 1715, before any kind of colonial law was imposed on the region.
As the series opens, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and the crew of his ship, the Walrus, are raiding another vessel they hope will swell their coffers after a very lean stretch. Their bad luck holds, however. Apart from a new cook who goes by the name John Silver (Luke Arnold), they acquire nothing of any real value.
That’s a tough break for Flint, whose fearsome reputation strikes terror in many hearts. His men, however, are on the verge of stripping Flint of his command and making another charismatic crew member their new captain. Only Flint’s quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), and boatswain, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), remain reasonably steadfast.
Nor do Flint’s problems stop there. He’s also being challenged by Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), captain of the pirate ship Ranger, and his cunning quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz). Both Flint and Vane are hot on the trail of a page that is missing from a ship’s log that, Flint believes, will point the way to a Spanish treasure galleon worth millions.
As the balance of power between these two men shifts back and forth, local smuggler and tavern-keeper Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New, who looks a bit like Keira Knightley if Keira Knightley ever ate a sandwich) keeps shifting her own allegiances.
Beyond that short set-up, the creative team behind Black Sails (Michael Bay is one of the executive producers) has requested that TV writers reveal as little as possible about this new series, so as not to spoil surprises about past and present alliances, betrayals, love affairs and blood feuds among the characters.
Stephens, who happens to be the son of Downton Abbey fan favorite Maggie Smith, buckles his swash very grandly in the central role, but it’s important to note that Black Sails isn’t populated by Disney pirates. There are some scenes of comic banter among the crew members, but by and large these are ruthless, cruel and very violent men (that raid that opens tonight’s premiere is really pretty scary).
The jaw-dropping details of the physical production, which actually is based in Capetown, South Africa, vividly evoke the bustling daily activity of New Providence Island, where these outlaws make their home, and even though the pirate ship scenes usually are filmed on dry land, the vessels themselves are multi-level things of great nautical beauty.
Starz clearly has placed a lot of faith in Black Sails. Even before this first eight-episode season premieres, the premium cable network already has ordered a second 10-episode season. Prospective viewers may want to be aware that, as was the case with the channel’s hit Spartacus series, there is copious nudity in Black Sails, although unlike Spartacus, it seems to be limited to the female cast members.
In any case, make sure to keep any small fry away from this very, very adult series.
Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in 'Black Sails,' premiering tonight on Starz.

Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.

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!”