Ian McShane had a couple of pretty good acts to follow in portraying Benjamin Disraeli who was arguably the United Kingdom's greatest Prime Minister. George Arliss played Disraeli on stage and screen in a story that centered around Great Britain's acquisition of the Suez Canal and it was one of his most celebrated parts. In The Prime Minister, John Gielgud plays Disraeli in 1941 with the backdrop of World War II and the climax there is Disraeli facing down the threatening Otto Von Bismarck and the newly united Germany. That was a considerable rewriting of history, but it served the propaganda purposes of the time well.
But this mini-series gives us a look at Disraeli's whole life and the many facets of that life. Disraeli was not a Jew, he was baptized in the Church of England, but his Jewish ancestry was always used as a slur against him and he never repudiated it or acted ashamed. He was a Georgian dandy, would be rake, would be novelist who dabbled in politics and eventually got a seat in Parliament.
The original impression of Disraeli was as a dandy and fop who hadn't a serious bone in his body. He did a considerable amount of bed hopping in his youth before meeting a woman a dozen years older than himself who became the love of his life. Mary Peach as Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis Disraeli matches McShane's performance in every step of the way.
Disraeli was one of the most creative statesmen of his century. The Tory Party owes its very existence to his vision today. He got way out in front of his party in his first ministry on the franchise reform question and his support of enlarging the franchise won voters to the Conservatives for generations though it did not bear immediate results. The series does go into his acquisition of the Suez Canal and gives the real story of the Congress of Europe in 1878 when both Disraeli and Bismarck took the measure of each other. The lesson there was that Europe did not go to war as it did in 1914. Had these guys been in charge at that time, World War I would never have happened.
Disraeli was Ian McShane's career role and if this series is ever rebroadcast on Masterpiece Theater or some other venue, do not miss it.
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