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This is a dramatisation of the true story of Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor and magistrate's clerk who lived in the small Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. In 1921 he was arrested and charged with poisoning his domineering wife, Catherine, and later attempting to poison a business rival, Oswald Martin, by administering arsenic to them. At his trial, Armstrong claimed that he had bought the arsenic simply to kill the dandelions on his lawn. However he was convicted of murder and executed in 1922. Written by
Martin Underwood <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This is a harrowing, totally gripping British TV mini-series in which Michael Kitchen gives what is probably the finest performance of his career. It is based on a true story, of a respectable solicitor and magistrate's clerk, a pillar of his community and of his Masonic lodge, Major Herbert Armstrong, who poisoned his intolerable and domineering wife with arsenic which he had originally bought to poison the dandelions on his lawn. Michael Kitchen shows a supernatural ability to become this character. He is a perfectly amiable and beautifully mannered gentleman of the Old School. Throughout the entire tale, no matter what pressure he is under, no matter how intolerable his situation, he never cracks. His manners never fail him. He is true to his manners to the very end. I cannot reveal the end, but believe me, most people wouldn't have kept their manners under those circumstances. The story is set in the small town of Hay-on-Wye, near the border of Wales, and the year is 1921. The screenplay by Michael Chaplin is absolutely brilliant, but the direction by Mike Hodges is even more so. The way Hodges captures every nuance of atmosphere of this past age is simply amazing. The art direction, sets, costumes, props, are utter perfection. Location filming really took place on the Welsh borders, where the relatively deserted aspect of the beautiful scenery has not changed all that much in a hundred years when seen from the right angles. After all, Shropshire is desperately under-populated even now, and Herefordshire is far from populous either. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher is outstanding, possibly the best work of his which I have ever seen. I first got to know him when he was operator for Freddie Francis. He is a truly delightful fellow. It is difficult to imagine that he is now 86. He retired five years after shooting this, and if he had never shot anything else, he would have laurels aplenty to rest upon, looking back at this absolutely beautiful job of capturing the spirit of the place and the magic of the time. He was always particularly sensitive to green locations, soft light, and real interiors, and was a true artist in his work. He knew how to draw the most from the most attractive aspects of the world around him. Gerry, I salute you for the magic you have brought to the screen on countless occasions! As for the other actors, Robert Stephens is astoundingly good in a cameo role as an impoverished local squire who drinks too much but is as hearty and good a chap as can be, though hopeless, irresponsible, and lets down his oldest friend. He is perfect in the role, and he cannot but remind many of us of certain such friends of yore, endearing but never to be relied upon. Apart from Kitchen, the outstanding and dominant presence in this production, though only in the first half (because then she dies), is Sarah Miles as Mrs. Armstrong. My God! Such a scary performance! She is too, too real. We have all hoped never to meet such a person, we know they exist, we may have met some, but to see one revealed raw on screen, her bile dripping from her maw, vitriol oozing from her every look, is a positive terror. And like all really ultimately terrifying persons, she can be quiet, calm, and focused in her destructive sarcasm, puts-downs, and horrifying dominance. It is a magisterial depiction of an impossible woman, all steel and no heart. David Thewlis is, as usual, magnificent as the stiff antagonist of Armstrong, and eerily portrays a man uncomfortable in his own skin, knee-capped by self-doubt, shy, but rigid. Lesley Sharp is just right as the chemist's daughter who complains that there are no men left because of the War and when she sees one, namely Thewlis, wraps him up in a parcel and carries him off to the wedding feast as rapidly as she can. Diana Quick is touching in her cameo role as Armstrong's lost love. Everyone is good. Bernard Hepton is a master of looking censorious when the time comes, his joviality disappearing in a flash when things get serious. Chloe Tucker is truly outstanding as the elder daughter of Armstrong, Eleanor, who is forced to grow up too soon and cope with big grown-up situations with courage and sad resignation. One wonders why such a talented actress has disappeared from our screens and not appeared in anything for ten years. This is a tragic, beautifully-observed tale, every detail attended to with a perfect touch. The ultimate tragedy is that of Major Armstrong himself, a man true to his manners and social ideals to the very last, and a jolly good fellow and loving father, who just has this one fault, that instead of losing his cool and dropping his manners when things get too tough, instead of shouting or lashing out, he copes instead by reaching for the arsenic, since he does not know what else to do. It does seem the best and most elegant solution to him when he is in extremis. After all, what is a chap to do, one can't be angry or impolite, so best to deal with things quietly, and perhaps everything will turn out all right, with just a little touch of murder setting things to rights. What a brilliant, subtle, and sophisticated mini-series this is.
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