There was a time when Masterpiece Theatre truly showed masterpieces rather than sordid and foul detective series or more recent novels that are perhaps a notch above Harlequin Romances. One of the better series, I recall, told the story of the life, loves and political triumphs of Benjamin Disraeli; and I have often longed to see it again, knowing full well it went the way of many old films introduced by Alistaire Cooke in the good old days.
Well lo and behold! Acorn Media has made Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic available once more in a boxed set of four one-hour video tapes. It runs at some 220 minutes and is priced at $79.95. This might be a stiff price for individuals (although it would make a superb gift to someone whose intelligence you respect), but I feel that schools and libraries should pay heed to what I say below.
Like most BBC historical recreations, this one-although produced on a modest budget, as one can tell from the absence of crowd scenes-is extremely accurate as to décor, dress, speech patterns, body language, and all those details that so add to our enjoyment and appreciation of the subject matter. Then again we have the grand British acting tradition in which even the smaller roles are played with individuality and an avoidance of stereotyping.
Ian McShane is our Disraeli and viewers of Lovejoy ` and `The Dick Francis Mysteries' just might recognize him. The historically accurate way in which the younger Disraeli overdressed himself as a defense against anti-Semitism is worth the price of the set alone, as are the looks he gets when he changes to almost Puritan black and enters Parliament as a new man. After what we just went through in our nation's capital, it is refreshing to see the story of a truly talented man who acted for the good of his country and when he thought his Party wrong, told them so!
Even when he decided that marriage with a rich widow considerably older than himself was the only way to pay his debts, he spent most of the rest of his life as the happiest of married men. The estimable Mary Anne is played wrinkles and all by Mary Peach, who perfectly portrays the sort of wife that such a man needs. And after seeing the dour Queen Victoria of Judi Dench in the recent film `Mrs. Brown,' it is a bit surprising to see the almost jolly Victoria of Rosemary Leach. Very human, very believable.
Of course, a little boning up on what `Liberal,' `Conservative,' `Tory,' and so on meant back then would help a little toward better understanding the intricacies of the political situation-but this is exactly what I hinted at above. What better way to teach the history of any period than to feed it up in a thumping good story. For myself, I found the social posturing of the times as much fun as the history lesson. By the way, very little of both have changed, since those who do not read their history are bound to repeat its mistakes.
As you watch you cannot help but see how important it was to oppose the party in power no matter what plan they had for the country. The important thing was to act for Your Party, which usually meant fighting the Other Party tooth and nail over everything. If this sounds familiar, you see my point.
Most of all, this is the story of a man taking social prejudices in the only way that works: showing them that he is better than any of them. For example, when Baron Rothchild was elected to Parliament, he refused to take the oath on anything but the Old Testament. When Disraeli wanted to shame the House for their bigotry, he appealed to them as a Christian (he had converted long before that) and reminded them that Rothchild was of the same religion as Christ. In a later sequence, he asked his bitterest opponent to be Viceroy of India because Disraeli thought him the best man for the job. This is what we used to call integrity.
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