Thursday, 9 February 2017
Elizabeth R (1971)
Glenda Jackson justly won two Emmy awards for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in this BBC serial. Her performance is excellent. Kind words must also be spoken of the make-up department, who had the job of making then 34-year old Jackson plausibly look 20 in the first episode and nigh-on 70 in the last.
Elizabeth R consists of six 85 minute episodes, each centred around a particular period or event in the queen's life. Each tale is self-contained, and there are sometimes quite long jumps in time between one episode and the next, so there's less of a narrative flow between episodes than I expected, before sitting down to watch. I think if you didn't have some prior knowledge of the period, you might struggle to follow it at times. If you are well informed about the period, on the other hand, you'll probably appreciate how faithful it is to our best understanding of the events of that time.
Episode 1 focuses on the two most difficult periods of Elizabeth's life before becoming queen. The first was the attempted abduction of her half-brother King Edward VI by her guardian Thomas Seymour. The second was pretty much the entire reign of her older sister Queen Mary, who was determined to return England to Catholicism, and who feared Elizabeth's popularity with the Protestants in the country.
Episodes 2 and 3 both deal with the question of marriage. The former deals with the many attempts to find a match during the early years of Elizabeth's reign, and the problems wrought by her conflicting desires - which were, not necessariily in order, to make the best match for England, to make the best match for herself as a woman, and to maintain her independence. The latter deals with her last serious suitor, the Duke d'Alencon, twenty years her junior and heir to the throne of France. Elizabeth was 46 at the time, so the chances of the union would have produced children seem small, but it is an interesting historical 'what if'?
Episode 4 centres on Elizabeth's relationship with Mary Stuart, the deposed Queen of Scots, and episode 5 on the Spanish Armada. The depiction of the latter is refreshingly honest, acknowledging that the vast majority of Spanish losses came from the weather, not the English ships that faced them.
The final episode then covers the Essex rebellion and the last years of the Queen's life.
I enjoyed this series very much, especially Jackson's performance, but it is not without problems. As noted above, it might be hard to follow without some prior knowledge the Queen's life. Aloso, the constrained resources of the BBC are sometimes very noticeable. While the costumes are always good, there is a conspicuous lack of crowd scenes, large scale action sequences, or anything else that would have proved too expensive or complex to film. When Elizabeth gives a rousing speech to the army assembled to fight the Spanish, for instance, we see only the Queen herself - the "army" exists only as post-production crowd noises.
If one can overlook the "economical" production (which is thematically fitting in a way, given Elizabeth's own renowned hatred of expense), and does not mind doing a little pre-reading on the period, I think this is well worth watching.