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DVD Review: Helen Mirren At The BBC

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Turn on the television on any given night in North America or go to a movie theatre, and if you were to believe what you saw was a fair sampling of the population, you'd think that around 80% of our population was between the ages of twenty and forty-five and vapidly attractive. That figure rises even higher if you only concentrate on the female actors (the word actress is a diminutive that means lessor actor) as you rarely catch sight of a woman over the age of fifty doing anything other than cleaning up after one of today's beautiful losers.

In moments of idle speculation I wonder sometimes if there's not only really ten or twenty actors of each gender that are just given a variety of wigs to wear playing all the roles; they all look so interchangeable. I know that's a gross exaggeration, but with the way casting directors and producers cast shows and movies by type instead of by acting ability there is an awful tendency for the "look" of an actor – especially in the case of a woman – to matter far more than anything as mundane as artistry.

Male actors seem to have a little more leeway, as nobody seems to find the idea of a sixty-something guy with a twenty-something girl all that unusual; it's the reverse you'll see as often as hen's teeth. It's not as if there haven't been roles written for women over the more than two millennia that the performance arts have existed, they just never seem to be performed on this side of the ocean.

The Changeling.jpgWhat makes this trend so terribly disappointing is the enormous amount of talent that is being ignored. Thankfully for those of us who want to see talented women perform, the miracle of modern technology rides to our rescue by giving us access to great performances from other countries, specifically England, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been going about the business of producing some of the best classical and contemporary theatre as television for nearly its entire existence.

Warner Brothers Hove Video has taken advantage of that fact, and in tandem with the BBC has been presenting some wonderful packages of various productions, and even more excitingly, packages featuring highlights from a single performer's work with the BBC. Helen Mirren has risen to stardom in North America in recent years through her performances in movies like The Queen and Calendar Girls and re-broadcasts of her long running television show Prime Suspect.

While her performances in those productions gives us an idea of her scope as an actor, watching the nine different productions included in the box set Helen Mirren At The BBC makes you realize the true depth of her abilities as an actor. These productions were filmed over an eight-year period from 1974 to 1982 and give us an amazing opportunity to not only see her performing the classics — Thomas Middleton's bloody Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, William Wycherley's bawdy Restoration sex comedy The Country Wife and Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart — but also rise to the challenges offered by contemporary scripts like Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets by Stephen Poliakoff.

While I was unfamiliar with a few of the titles, some of them having been written specifically for the BBC or, like J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister, a less well known work by a famous author, the ones I did recognize made me wonder at the range that was being demanded of her as an actor. You couldn't find two more different worlds than the ones presented in The Changeling and The Country Wife yet here she was at an early stage in her career, 1974 and 1977 respectively, appearing in both and giving riveting performances.

But somehow the difficulties faced by her as an actor in those two productions paled in comparison to what she was called upon to do in her performance in Blue Remembered Hills, where she and her fellow cast members are dressed as, and play, children. It is a satirical look at how people idealize the past, especially childhood, that wouldn't work if the adult actors weren't able to give convincing performances as children. There is something almost frightening about watching a child's mannerisms and behaviours being performed with the sincerity and realism that Mirren brought to her role

Playing an unsympathetic character from history is probably one of the most difficult tasks an actor ever faces, especially if they want to be true to their character. You can't let your personal feelings about who or what this person is or did come through, but must show them and their situation as honestly and clearly as possible. In Mirren's 1975 portrayal, in Caesar and Claretta, of Claretta, Mussolini's mistress during the last days of their lives, we see her do a marvelous job of that. She had been his mistress for ten years by the time they were captured by the Italian underground while trying to escape, and although she was offered her freedom, Claretta chose to die with her lover.

the apple cart.jpgThat Mirren is able to make us see the depth of her character's love for a person history considers one of the villains of the twentieth century is remarkable as she is able to overcome our abhorrence for the object of her affection to the extent that we believe her feelings. We may not see what she finds so attractive in Mussolini, but there can be no doubting the depth of her character's devotion to him.

Also included along with the nine performances are two interviews conducted with Mirren. One is from 1975 when she was a new rising star, while the other is newly recorded for this box set, and features her talking about these performances and her early career in general. Obviously the material in this set was not shot with modern DVD equipment in mind, but the sound is perfectly adequate and the pictures are clear. It's interesting to see the difference in quality though when they make the switch from shooting in studio on video, to location shooting with film. Film seems to have a substantially greater depth of field than video, and the image quality of both Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets is far superior to those shot on Video.

Whether it was shot in video or film though is irrelevant to the quality of the performances on display in this collection (not just by Helen Mirren either – look for a spectacular performance from Ian Holm in Soft Targets and Prunella Scales', of Fawlty Towers fame, appearance in The Apple Cart). From the dark depths of depravity in the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, the farce of The Country Wife, to the melancholy of her character Celia in Soft Targets, each performance Helen Mirren gives is as memorable as anything she's done in recent years.

In Helen Mirren At The BBC we are able to watch an actor perform in a wide variety of challenging and interesting roles, with spectacular results. It is not only a pleasure to watch her performances because they are brilliant, it's also nice to see a woman being given the same opportunities that are normally only given to men on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. If you liked Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, l and ll, you will love this set.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://youtube.com/user/beretsheri0001 Ana

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article and for the kind admiration to this exceptional actress that can be gathered from your thorough review…