James Maxwell

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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