Starring: Kenneth More, Isla Blair, Anthony Bate
Kenneth More is usually remembered as a stodgy, theatrical kind of an actor, but he brings a weary, broken-down dignity to this BBC mini-series which imagines an alternative 1970s (the show was aired in 1978) in which Britain lost WWII and has become a satellite of a “German Europe”, nominally under self-rule but cravenly kowtowing to its Berlin overlords.
More plays Peter Ingram, an ageing TV writer (“a terrible crap merchant,” as one colleague dismisses him) who’s has a big hit with a semi-autobiographical show about Germany’s invasion of Britain in 1940. Himself a veteran of the war, Ingram believes he’s honouring the fallen, but Jill (Isla Blair), a bright young member of the cast, is quick to mock the show’s simplistic morals and point out how it has the effect of making the British public feel good about themselves while also reconciling them to defeat. And as he and Jill embark on a romantic fling, she proceeds to shake him out of his state of complacency in a way that threatens to put him at odds with his Nazi paymasters.
Scripted by Philip Mackie (who also penned the much maligned The Cleopatras), An Englishman’s Castle starts out as a talk piece – enjoyably so, with some sharply written exchanges between Ingram and Harmer (Anthony Bate), the urbane Programme Controller who gently encourages him to remove the name of a Jewish character from his latest script. But as Ingram becomes deeply involved with Jill, the tension deepens and there are some surprisingly bold, hard-hitting plot beats, all leading towards a perfectly formed and darkly thoughtful conclusion.
It’s the sort of original, spikily intelligent drama that used to be the BBC’s stock in trade back back in the ’60s and ’70s, and one of the delights of the show for 21st century audiences is the privileged, insider’s glimpse it gives into the how TV programmes were made at that time, with vivid, authentic-feeling scenes of rehearsals and blocking, hectic shooting days in the studio and drinks in the bar afterwards (there’s an acidly funny scene where an actors reacts badly at a read-through when he finds out that his character is due to die at the hands of machine gun-wielding stormtroopers).
An Englishman’s Castle is also noticeable for offering, in the shape of the pert, witty, secretive Jill, a complex and intriguing supporting role for Isla Blair, a wonderfully feline actress who all too often tended to be relegated to sexy cameo parts. The series was shot on video, which comes up slightly blurry but very bright on this DVD transfer. 9/10