Sorry for being a bit slow in getting round to writing something about the second season of The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Richard E Grant.
I won’t write about this in as much detail as I did about the first season, which I think is better – but did want to say that I think it is worth watching, and the first episode of the second season, in particular, is probably my favourite out of the whole series.
The first series largely centres on the love triangle between Sir Percy Blakeney (Grant), his wife Marguerite (Elizabeth McGovern) and her ex-lover, now a spy for Robespierre, Chauvelin (Martin Shaw), who is Blakeney’s arch-enemy. However, in the second series both Shaw and McGovern are out of the cast – I don’t know what the reasons for this were but would guess that Shaw, at least, had other commitments – and Grant pretty well has to carry the series on his own. Ronan Vibert’s role as Robespierre is stepped up so that he becomes the main villain of the piece, and John McEnery is brought in as Sir William Wetherby, a new older sidekick for Percy. Both of these are fine actors and Vibert in particular is downright chilling as Robespierre – but I must say that I missed both Marguerite and Chauvelin, and felt losing both these central characters together was a real shame, taking away from the romance and tension.
However, although I prefer the first series in general, I do love Ennui, the first episode of the second series, which was directed by Graham Theakston, who also made a fine version of The Mill on the Floss (1997), which I’ve reviewed here in the past. This episode was scripted by Matthew Hall, who is also a crime novelist under the name MR Hall – I haven’t read any of his books as yet, but am tempted.
This episode gives Richard E Grant a chance to play someone beside himself with grief, after Marguerite dies giving birth to their daughter. This is one of the plot twists which, I believe, infuriated Orczy purists, because it departs so far from the books – but, for me, Grant is brilliant in these scenes, as he puts one of Marguerite’s dresses on a fire and ignores the timid suggestions from a housekeeper that she should give the frock to her for her daughter’s trousseau.
Much of the episode sees Blakeney wrapped up in himself and his misery – there are scenes where he is at court, wearing a strangely disconcerting bright white wig, and the Prince of Wales upbraids him for dwelling on his grief, although the slightly surprising word the Prince chooses to describe it is “ennui”, ie boredom/depression. Wetherby also has a go at him for letting his work as the Pimpernel slip, telling him it isn’t what Marguerite would have wanted. You can see they are worried and trying to make him snap out of it, but I kept wishing someone would show some sympathy instead of being quite so bracing.
Of course, he does soon return to the fray, as he has to rescue a young woman determined to save her parents from the guillotine, but the feeling of loneliness is there all through this second series. Each of the three episodes has a major female character who joins Percy in his plotting to save victims from the guillotine, and there are hints of romance at times, but none of them really takes the place of Marguerite either in his heart or in the drama.
Bringing in Robespierre as a major character gives the writers and directors of this second series (these are different for each episode) a chance to show how the Revolution developed. Many of the characters, are seen as with loyalties to both sides, torn between their original idealism/radicalism and their current reliance on violence – and trying to justify their increasingly brutal and desperate actions both to others and to themselves. Percy himself does make mistakes in this series, and sometimes puts himself and others in danger, especially in the last episode, where his foppishness boils over into spiteful frustration at times – but all this helps to make him a very human hero.
As in the first series, the sets and costumes are breathtaking – and the whole is well up to the best BBC production values.