BBC

Tea Party (1965, Charles Jarrott)

Tea Party opens with Vivien Merchant getting a job at a toilet bowl company. The second or third shot of Party is a toilet on display. Strikingly weird without the context; director Jarrott and editor Raoul Sobel are enthusiastic about the visual possibilities without really being any good at them. It’s the medium; Tea Party is a mid-sixties television play, shot on video; there’s only so much anyone’s going to be able to do with it, visually. And Jarrott and Sobel try. Jarrott’s better at the… visual montage than at the shot composition, which brings us back to Merchant and the beginning of Party.

She’s going to be secretary to the self-made, king of the British bidet Leo McKern. Best toilets and such in the country. The interview goes well until McKern starts asking about Merchant’s old job and she reluctantly tells him about her handsy old boss. McKern drags it out of her, then condemns such behavior. It’s weird because Jarrott’s male gaze is overt in the scene. Merchant’s legs get distracting because you’re trying to see past them after a while. Jarrott’s got to make it real clear; after this awkward start, Party’s frankness will become one of its assets. The frankness also helps inform the performances. Tea Party, at its best, is a symbiotic success—the writing, the acting, the production (if not the direction itself). But at the beginning it’s weird.

Especially since McKern is getting married the next day to Jennifer Wright, who’s way too young and pretty for portly blowhard McKern. But damn if McKern hasn’t convinced himself he’s Wright’s dream guy; him begging her for validation on their wedding night is rending, alternately making him sympathetic for asking bit her not for lying to him. It means you can’t trust Wright and not just because of her creepy brother (Charles Gray) who only showed up before the wedding and has inserted himself in their lives. McKern seems perturbed by it, so hires Gray, but then Wright just goes to work for Gray. So some possible sympathy for McKern; especially since he’s got these little shit twin sons, Peter Bartlett and Robert Bartlett, who are weird but because McKern’s got to be a weird dad. But also the twin thing.

Only once Wright starts working for Gray, McKern starts getting wild for Merchant. Like… sniffing her office chair level. It’s a gross turn and really informs how the narrative distance should be taken. It’s just the medium… Pinter and Jarrott are keeping you away for a reason.

It takes Merchant a while to realize what’s up, but then she starts playing along. We get no insight into her as a character because… Pinter writes her like a cartoon. She prances around the office, swishing at McKern. Is it intentional or passive? Is it just the sixties secretary or is Merchant doing it with agency? Pinter goes on to raise a few questions, seemingly without any intention of answering them because answering them would give the supporting characters too much depth. It’s all about McKern and his descent into jealous horniness. It makes him see spots. For a moment it seems like fellow old (and optometrist) John Le Mesurier is going to have a real talk with McKern, which seems like it’d be great, but Pinter goes another way and whatever he comes up with isn’t great. It’s fine, but not great.

Like the ending, when they bring it all together for—well, for a Tea Party. It’s a pragmatic conclusion but relies entirely on Jarrott’s direction instead of anyone’s acting. He and editor Sobel try a lot with Tea Party, but very rarely actually succeed. They’re not up for the task at the finish.

Quite strong performances from McKern, Merchant, Gray. Le Mesurier’s good. Wright gets an incomplete but because of the script. You keep expecting the Bartlett brothers to stand at the end of a hall, holding hands, telling McKern to come play with them. They’re Party’s greatest potential. Their perspective on the whole thing would’ve given a lot more possibilities.

Instead, it’s a tad blah. Especially when you consider it copped out on its more interesting implications.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Jarrott; written by Harold Pinter; edited by Raoul Sobel; production designer, Eileen Diss; produced by Sydney Newman; aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Leo McKern (Disson), Vivien Merchant (Wendy), Charles Gray (Willy), Jennifer Wright (Diana), Peter Bartlett (Tom), Robert Bartlett (John), and John Le Mesurier (Disley).


The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e08 – The Princely Gift

I can’t say if this episode, The Princely Gift, is better than the previous episode, which was the comedy. Gift is about a Venetian navigator, played by Londoner Derek Smith with an accent you’d think was a little strong even in 1972. He’s working with these three businessmen from Bristol who want to do an exploration themselves, not for science and knowledge, but for profit. Smith is along for the ride, because he doesn’t have the experience to get support in Venice. He’s a novice navigator.

So maybe a third of the episode is Smith’s life in England, with his wife (Katharine Blake) and sons in tow. Blake wants to go back to Venice, especially if it means Smith doesn’t get to go on his voyage. She worries about him. Blake and Smith’s marriage chemistry is so good it gets past him being British and her being South African. In 1972. Ew. But they’re both amazing. Blake’s performance is (unfortunately since we’re on episode eight) easily the female performance on the show so far and maybe even the best performance overall. She’s really, really good.

Another third involves the Bristol businessmen, which is done for humor. They’re bumbling Brits. Blake mocks them openly. It’s funny. That comedy feel again, with an entirely different subject, cast, director, and writers. “Shadow of the Tower,” in two episodes, has completely refined its potential. This episode also involves light. Fake light, sure, but light. Light gives the show a rather inviting feel. Very good direction from Keith Williams. Particularly excellent use of music too, possibly by Herbert Chappell (who’s the only credited composer and for the title music).

The last third (and basically the last third of the episode too) involves King James Maxwell and Derek once the petition for a voyage gets all the way up the ladder. You’ve got this earthy, passionate Venetian and this British monarch who might be in tights and definitely has a stick up his ass, but they’re both excited about the world and about knowledge. It’s awesome. If history was actually two percent as cool as the scene, it’d be a good historical moment.

“Shadow of the Tower” really has gotten extraordinarily good all of a sudden. Because it’s still expository—it’s still basically just a history lesson—just an elegantly, artfully executed one.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e07 – A Fly in the Ointment

“In the Shadow of the Tower” has been getting really good, but it hasn’t done anything like A Fly in the Ointment in the ointment before. When I grokked the format—different directors, different writers, maybe not everything from King James Maxwell’s perspective (though tellingly zilch so far from Queen Norma West’s perspective), I was kind of hopeful, kind of apprehensive. The show’s from 1972; it’s had almost fifty years to get discovered and rediscovered and I’d never heard of it.

Because Ointment delivers on all the potential of the concept, more than I’d ever imagined; Ointment is a comedy episode. It makes fun of British people, it makes fun of them being pompous and ignorant, it makes fun of them so stuck-up compared to Europeans, it makes fun of them being lazy rich. It’s freaking awesome. And it’s got the Major from “Fawlty Towers” (Ballard Berkeley) playing… a fifteenth century version of the Major. It’s awesome.

And it’s a lot more open than the show’s ever been before. They’re not in dreary England, the episode takes place in Rome and other sunny places. Moira Armstrong’s direction is fantastic. Julian Mitchell’s script is just the right amount sarcastic humor, right amount straight humor, right amount exposition. And because of the now anthology style of the show, you could potentially watch it separate from everything else. Maxwell shows up, but basically for a cameo. It’s all about the guest stars.

There’s John Welsh as this English nobleman who’s plotting against Maxwell, forced to collaborate with Eastern Mediterranean types with their loose morals and sexy art. He’s a rich idiot, who everyone entertains because he’s a rich idiot. In his entourage (of conspirators), there’s also Christopher Sandford as his randy lovestuck dandy nephew who’s hanging around for the old man’s money and drinking and whoring while he waits, Donald Eccles is an archdeacon who’s also an idiot and in the group, and finally there’s Peter Bowles, who starts real quiet and ends up giving the second best performance in an episode of outstanding performances.

Thanks to Ointment, no matter what else “Tower” does, it’s under-regarded. It’s amazing.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e06 – The White Hart

The episode starts with guys conspiring to overthrow Henry VII (Robert Maxwell) with the help of foreign money and a pretender king… in other words, “In the Shadow of the Tower” feels like itself again. If itself again means it feels more like the first three episodes than the two before this episode. It’s actually not a return to that original form, even if some of the same pieces are in play. For example, Queen Norma West returns, just with zilch to do. She’s scenery in Marigold Sharman’s scenes, something for Sharman to talk off.

The main story—and where the episode gets very different from anything coming before, especially the episodes with the same type of stakes—is about Sir William Stanley, who’s almost definitely a traitor of some sort. A conspiring one. Maxwell’s on to him, slowly but surely because Maxwell’s too trusting—the scene where Maxwell tears Stanley (John Franklyn-Robbins) down is fantastic. It’s just a shame Franklyn-Robbins isn’t any good. He’s very close to actively bad, hurting the many scenes he’s in this episode.

So Franklyn-Robbins is Sharman’s brother-in-law and Sharman is Maxwell’s mother and the King’s mother doesn’t want her in-law executed or even threatened with execution for treason. Maxwell doesn’t agree with her assessment of the situation, which doesn’t lead to a rift, just an oft-repeated exposition dump about Maxwell’s responsibilities as king.

It should be a great episode. If Franklyn-Robbins were any good, it’d be a great episode. Instead it’s just pretty good, with John Elliot’s script sometimes a little slow but a really good performance from Maxwell this time out. Even though the scripts aren’t giving Maxwell explicit character development, his character is developing through the performance as the series progresses. There’s definitely a “don’t question the Tudor king” attitude about the show, which is kind of weird but then the English have bought into the idea of not questioning their history just like the rest of Western civilization so maybe it’s not.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e05 – The Serpent and the Comforter

This episode is peculiar. It has a new writer, new director, same production design, same King (James Maxwell), but in this episode, Maxwell’s end credit is just as “The King,” not “King Henry VII.” Because it doesn’t matter who he is. He doesn’t need to be the king. He could just as easily be Pontius Pilate. If there is a Jesus homage, it’s more functional than anything else, like writer Hugh Whitemore wanted the framework but not too many of the details. So I guess Maxwell couldn’t just as easily be Pontius Pilate.

David Bowie is Pontius Pilate. And Maxwell is no David Bowie. And David Bowie is no James Maxwell.

Anyway.

The episode’s about Maxwell getting interested in this condemned heretic, played by Peter Jeffrey. Unbeknownst to Maxwell, one of the soldiers guarding Jeffrey also gets interested. David Ashton plays the young soldier. Ashton doesn’t understand what heresy means while Maxwell is just looking for a debate. He’s a privileged, bored White man with a wife and baby at home; of course he wants to debate some guy who’s condemned to death.

It’s been very interesting to see how Catholic the English are in the “Tower” era. Hearing Maxwell harp on about the greatness of the Catholic Church is strange, almost disconcerting. Though that reaction’s probably a combination of history major and BBC-watcher, your mileage may vary.

So Maxwell, defender of the Catholic faith, debates Jeffrey, who just wants to go back to Jesus’s teachings from the Bible and knock it off with all the corrupt Church stuff. Maxwell “wins” the debate by dismissing Jeffrey’s reliance on empirical evidence; of course it doesn’t make senes if you see it, God made it that way not to make sense so you wouldn’t try to figure it out.

But the real emotion comes with Jeffrey and Ashton. See, Ashton’s got an impressionable young mind and a good heart and he bonds with Jeffrey, which does Jeffrey some good, but also not.

There’s an unfortunate voice over sequence but it’s the early seventies so it can be forgiven. Nothing really matters since Jeffrey can act through anything. He’s phenomenal, spell-binding, whatever. You hang on every word. It’s a heck of a downer but a damned good one.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e04 – The Crowning of Apes

This episode has a different director, Prudence Fitzgerald, and a different writer, Brian Rawlinson, than the first three episodes, which explains a lot of the stylistic differences. Rawlinson being a guy might also explain why Henry (James Maxwell) is cruel in a very different way than he ever has been before. It’s like Rawlinson can’t bring himself to make Henry appear kind to children twice in one episode; speaking of being kind to children, we’ve never seen Henry’s son. Not to mention the Queen not getting an appearance in this episode either.

Though it’s not a very ladylike episode; it’s all about the traitor James Laurenson going over and teaming up with—well, some other people. They’re in Ireland, they hate the Tudors. It’s War of the Roses stuff, Whites, and Reds. Like I said, I didn’t do this era of English history; I glazed over with it during “Game of Thrones” too. So Laurenson’s got this pretender king, an annoying tween, and he’s drummed up enough money for German mercenaries and the Irish are with him and they’re going to invade and take out Henry and company.

Here’s the thing. “The Shadow of the Tower”’s first episode is all about how Henry invaded and spanked Laurenson and company real bad and Henry became king. So these conspirators think they’re all of a sudden going to out medieval battle the guy who spanked them so severely a few years before. They’re idiots. History: entitled, mediocre White men have always been a problem. I mean, I’ve got four blogs, just look at me.

Anyway, once you realize—about a third of the way into the episode—how these guys are basically just dopes, it’s hard to get interested in their stupid plotting. Cobra Commander had better plans. Meanwhile, Henry and his guys are just freaking out about getting enough troops together because they’re broke. There’s some good stuff with Hugh Sullivan wanting to get to lead a company or whatever it’s called in the actual battle instead of hanging out in safety. It goes to informing Maxwell’s Henry rather well. A lot of the episode gives Maxwell solid work, actually, just not that last moment. There’s a good last section, after the battle, when Henry brings in all the traitors and assigns fates. Then it gets deep, then it gets bad. A kind of goofy, cruel bad, which doesn’t really invalidate anything but it does jar.

But, overall, a good episode. Definitely better than the previous one.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e03 – The Schooling of Apes

So the last episode ended with the Queen (Norma West) giving birth to a son, making the King (James Maxwell) feel more secure in his reign. Because now he had an heir and something something. British royalty nonsense. But Maxwell was overjoyed about it to the point it was disturbing to think about the actual guy in the 1490s being this craven a guy. Like he’s Steve Jobs or something.

Anyway, this episode has got nothing with it. West isn’t even in the episode. Maxwell doesn’t even mention the kid. He sleeps with his dog, who he doesn’t show any affection. It’s a sad life for a grown man, but whatever.

Instead, this episode is about another kid. Sort of. It’s about this plot from this bishop introduced in the previous episode who’s against Maxwell because Maxwell fleeced him at the end of the last episode. Morris Perry plays the bishop. He’s sort of really good. Especially for this episode. See, the plot is to introduce a child heir to invalidate Maxwell’s claim, only the child heir is in the Tower of London (hence the title?) so Perry comes up with the great idea to pretend some peasant kid is this kid escaped from the Tower and now returned to claim the throne. It’s pretty dumb stuff, but it does give “Days of Our Lives” and such a rather firm footing in reality. The imposter kid stuff doesn’t get resolved this episode, just some guy (James Laurenson) betraying Maxwell to join up with Perry. Because, again, Maxwell treated Laurenson like shit and humiliated him.

While it’s sort of funny to watch Maxwell never understand why people don’t like him, it starts getting a little trying this episode. Usually Tower is a lot more engaging; this episode, while yes, it does move some important players around, nothing actually happens. You don’t… learn anything. Other than you can’t execute a priest but you can torture him pretty bad.

For whatever reason, this show doesn’t do well with To Be Continued episode enders. Everything in it is To Be Continued, it’s history.

I might also be going hard on it because it’s got a cruel, questionably useful ending.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e02 – Power in the Land

This episode tells a loser’s story. He played the game of thrones and he lost. The loser in question is Humphrey Stafford; real guy, wikipedia page and everything, played by Maurice Roëves. Roëves is awesome. He also gets to give more personality to Stafford than anyone else in the episode gets near. Sure, it’s not like we realize Stafford’s just a proto-rich white guy playing anarchist—like everything in Tower, the characters tell us twice in expository dialogue—but Roëves’s performance then syncs up with that revelation. And that revelation even informs some of Roëves’s performance. It’s a lot of personality for the show. But Stafford’s one of history’s losers. Again, I never did English royalty in history courses and I’ve always avoided it. So everything’s a surprise. Until the Boer War. But the show knows. And the show positions Roëves as this non-tragic loser. It’s very interestingly executed, rather well-done. Roëves makes the difference.

Then, of course, there’s the other half of the episode, which is a history lesson about how King Henry VII started breaking up the Church and the State. To get at Stafford, who was hiding in sanctuary. You couldn’t get sanctuary in a church for treason anymore. The show doesn’t do a pro and con of it, it’s just something Henry (James Maxwell) has got to do to solve this problem. He doesn’t consider the consequences. The characters are all very certain of their godawful take on reality, making Tower a lot more striking—dramatically—than Game of Thrones. Some guy even talks about the game in the episode.

One thing the show doesn’t care about? Maxwell and Norma West. She’s pregnant so she can’t hang out with him on the road and when he’s in London he’s always too busy but apparently their marriage has been going well. For the fifteenth century or whatever. But there’s no character development from anything in the previous episode. Strangely so. It’s like West, as an actor, doesn’t remember her arc from last episode. It’s a weird vibe. But fine. West and Maxwell are potentially likable together in a show where no one’s got rewarding chemistry camaraderie for the audience. You take what you can get, charm-wise.

It’s a really good hour of television; I learned things, I was entertained, I was amused. Rosemary Anne Sisson’s script was good, director Anthea Browne-Wilkinson kept it moving.

The Shadow of the Tower (1972) s01e01 – Crown in Jeopardy

In 2019, some forty-seven years since its first airing, “The Shadow of the Tower” feels like “Game of Thrones” without blood, booze, boobs, rape, battle scenes, dragons, prominent female characters, butts, zombies, and CGI. Oh, but it does have historical accuracy. There’s something really interesting seeing this “game of thrones,” specifically King Henry VII’s game for the throne, play out. Dramatized ingenuity is far more impressive than workshopped ingenuity. Even if they’re the same ingenuities. It’s kind of like Borges’s Don Quixote.

But it’s also might play more accessible these days because of “Thrones.” Amid everything else, “Game of Thrones” did teach modern audiences how to listen to plotting, something no one had been able to do since the British in the seventies with stuff like “Tower.” And they couldn’t hold that audience. At least not in America.

Anyway. This first episode introduces Henry, played by James Maxwell, who seems like he could go Bond villain at any time, making the whole thing a little disconcerting, and it introduces all the people pissed off or happy about him all of a sudden invading, killing the king, taking the throne. There are the armed insurrection guys plotting, there are the middle-of-the-road guys trying to figure out if they can work with the new king, there’s the princess—Norma West—who was promised to marry Maxwell when they were kids only she never thought it’d happen—trying to figure out her feelings on everything.

Now, “Tower” is bad at Bechdel. West’s got nothing to talk about but men and boys. Sure, it’s a patriarchy but… even with the limited expectations for a seventies dramatization of fifteenth century royal history, “Tower” doesn’t give West a lot to do except fret. West’s able to do something with it, which is impressive as hell, but it takes a while.

The episode’s got a good pace. Rosemary Anne Sisson’s teleplay is like a great lecture, the way she paces and plots the conversations and reveals. There’s no action, of course, no battles, barely any corpses, barely any crowds. It’s just about the cast providing a reasonable facsimile of their historical figures, reasonable but to the general viewer and, presumably, the informed. I didn’t do fifteenth century English history; it’s all going to be a surprise to me.

It’s very interesting.

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