“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.