Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Brett
This curious piece is an example of just how uncompromisingly highbrow BBC dramas could be back in the early 1970s. Told out of sequence, with each instalment mixing episode from the author’s life with dramatizations of her short stories, it’s not always easy to follow, even for those who are well up on the Bloomsbury set. For those who don’t know their Carringtons from their Lytton Stracheys, it’s sure to be something of a head-scratcher.
With her partner John Middleton Murray (Jeremy Brett) and her mousy friend Leslie (Annette Crosbie) unreliably narrating, we see Mansfield having an early dalliance with a violinist, shacking up in a cottage with DH Lawrence (a convincingly ranty performance by Michael Williams), sitting out WWI in the sunny South of France, and then dying from TB in lonely exile. No obvious parallels are drawn between her life and work, but the adaptations of her stories (the best of which is a tautly melodramatic version of “Bliss” featuring a young Michael Gambon as a cheating husband) comment tacitly on what we see.
An inevitable result of this approach is that there’s no narrative drive to sweep you along, and in fact what you end up with is an intentionally fragmentary portrait of the artist, one where she seems like a different person from one episode to the next. But this is arguably to the series’ benefit, because it draws from Vanessa Redgrave what has to be one of her most varied, mercurial performances – glamour-pussing it up in pearls and flowing gowns one moment, then earthy and sensual, then lonely and scared as she succumbs to her illness.
It’s an uneven series. Without Redgrave’s presence, a few of the inserted stories fall a bit flat, and some rather cheap, cardboardy studio sets representing “abroad” don’t help the cause. But when she’s on screen, you can see why she was regarded as one of Britain’s finest young actresses at the time. The series was shot in a mixture of video and film; on this transfer the film segments are quite pale and spotty, but the video elements look bright and sharp. 6/10