I’ve now finished watching the BBC adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was shown as two three-part seasons during 1999 and 2000, and has just been repeated here on BBC4. I started off intending to write just one posting about both seasons, but it is getting rather long, as I keep thinking of more to say, so I’ll make this one just about series one, and come back for part two in the next few days.
I gather this adaptation is controversial among diehard fans of the original books by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, for being “untrue” to the novels. However, I think it is a brilliant piece of television in its own right. Richard E Grant gives a dazzling performance as Sir Percy Blakeney/the Pimpernel, while Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw are great too as Marguerite and Chauvelin. I do also like the 1982 film starring Anthony Andrews, but this version may just be my favourite. Although I enjoyed the books as a teenager, I haven’t reread them in many years – but the atmosphere of dashing romance, glamour and danger remains with me. I think that swashbuckling spirit is re-created in this series, however much the plot details are changed, together with a sense of the darkness underlying it all.
A big attraction of the series, which had different directors for different episodes (Patrick Lau and Edward Bennet in the first series) is that the costumes and sets are so vivid and often downright gorgeous. The French scenes were filmed in Prague, as with many costume dramas in recent years, with wonderfully atmospheric streets and old buildings, while the breathtaking Wrotham Park at Barnet in Hertfordshire is the location used for Sir Percy’s home, Blakeney Manor. I don’t know where they filmed the court scenes, with Sir Percy as a sort of unofficial jester to the Prince of Wales, later to become the Prince Regent (Jonathan Coy). However, these scenes are very colourful and lavish, giving a feeling of how the decadence at the court in Britain echoed that of the toppled regime in France. Something I liked about this series is that it never falls into the trap of making the aristocrats simply good and persecuted and the revolutionaries evil. The inequalities and cruelties which led to the revolution in the first place are shown, and the glittering English court, contrasted with the rough streets of Paris, is all part of this.
Richard E Grant hams it up wonderfully as Percy in the court scenes – outrageously languid and foppish, but always with a sense that this is a mask and that he is full of simmering nervous energy underlying it all. For me, the way he manages to play a hero masquerading as a fop is a triumph. His expressive pale blue eyes help, often suggesting what his character is really thinking or feeling while he pretends to be bored or self-obsessed. I think you have to take the disguised Pimpernel as the real man, Sir Percy as the mask. On one level, of course, he is an aristocrat who saves others of his own class – though some of those he saves are not aristocrats, but people who have incurred the wrath of Robespierre and the committee for other reasons. Yet, at any rate in this adaptation, I take it that Sir Percy couldn’t at heart give a damn about the cravats and fine wines he harps on about, or the other trappings of aristocracy – that it is all part of his brilliant disguise. We see the real man behind all the finery when he is in a red cap and ragged clothes in the streets of Paris, and I think Grant plays the hero just as well as he does the dandy. There’s a great description of his performance in this review by Paul Mavis, part of a consideration of the massive Romance Collection box set of DVDs issued in US, which included the first season of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The first three-part series was entirely written by Richard Carpenter, who, I’ve just discovered from the imdb, also wrote the hit 1980s series Robin of Sherwood. Even before noticing this, I must say I was sometimes reminded of Robin Hood and Maid Marian by the way Percy and his wife, Marguerite (Elizabeth McGovern) work together to save people from death. Just like Marian, Marguerite in this version is not prepared to wait at home. She repeatedly follows her husband to France and gets involved in all aspects of the daring plots cooked up by the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel – putting her own life on the line just as he does his.
The love triangle between Percy, Marguerite and her ex-lover Chauvelin, Robespierre’s spy and the Pimpernel’s arch-enemy, reminded me more of the more recent Robin Hood series starring Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne. Martin Shaw, as Chauvelin, has something of the same tortured quality as Gisborne, torn between his life of plotting and vestiges of idealism. There are constant hints of what it was in him that attracted Marguerite in the first place, glimpses of a better man who hasn’t quite vanished yet. At times I think there’s almost a danger that Chauvelin will steal the series from Blakeney, as Shaw is such a charismatic actor.
Elizabeth McGovern has a slightly mischievous quality at times which works well in the scenes where she fights or flirts with her screen husband, and her eyes (also pale blue) are just as expressive as his. She also brings out the contradictions in a character who is now an English milady, but vividly remembers her life as a struggling French actress, and who is sympathetic to the causes of the revolution even as she watches its effects with horror.
I was surprised to see that the sleeve of one video version actually lists McGovern as the main star with her picture at first glance featured more prominently than Grant’s, so presumably she was more of a name to conjure with in America at the time than he was. This was a bit unfair, as it is very much his series – but the couple work well together and there is a lot of chemistry between them, with some tender marital scenes which I enjoyed.
Not that there’s much tenderness in the first episode, which I believe is the closest to the books. Here, the couple are estranged after Percy learns that his French wife – originally a poor girl who achieved fame as an actress – denounced an aristocrat whose whole family was then killed. He keeps an icy distance from her until eventually she gets the opportunity to explain what happened, that the aristocrat concerned had her parents hanged before her eyes, and so she wanted him punished – but had no idea the punishment would be death and would extend to his children too. One review I’ve looked at says that, in the book, her motivation isn’t as strong as this, since the man she denounces had her brother beaten rather than her parents killed. The change makes Marguerite more sympathetic, which I think is true – but it is also a stronger depiction of the violence of the old regime, which has to be remembered amid the scenes of revolutionary terror.
I’m puzzled by comments I’ve seen from one or two critics suggesting it is a flaw in this production that Percy never states his reason for going to save people from the guillotine. Surely there is no need for him to state the reasons for his heroism. As he plans the next elaborate disguise and plot, his desire to save lives goes without saying. And this character would never say it anyway.
PS – I gather the VHS version of this series features a “making of” featurette which I don’t think was included in the DVD set – can anyone who has seen it on DVD confirm for me that the special feature isn’t included? I’d also love to hear from anyone who has seen this – I don’t know whether it is just a few minutes or a whole behind the scenes mini-feature. Also I’d be interested to know if anyone visiting my blog has read the tie-in book The Making of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and whether you think it is any good.