In the days when the sun never set on the English Empire and Queen Victoria glowered at everyone as if daring them to enjoy life after she had suffered the loss of her beloved Albert, London society was a mass of repressed emotions. Propriety, or at least the impression of it, was the byword. Even the least hint of non-conformity in late 19th century England would be enough to cause you to lose your place in society.
Just ask Oscar Wilde how easy it was to fall from grace; one moment being the toast of all society, the next being exiled and left to die in squalid poverty. Yet it was also an era where if you played your cards right, with a little bit of luck you could parlay looks, charm, and sensuality into elevated status in society. Catch the right eye and you could even end up being made part of the inner circle surrounding the throne.
Such was the case of Lillie Langtry who started life on the Channel Island of Jersey, the daughter of a clergyman, and ended up being the toast of London society, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and finally a successful actress. In Lillie we saw the precursor to today's celebrity who, with no discernible talent, manages to command the attention of the press and the public. They might not have been so crass as to call it sleeping your way to the top in Victorian England, but no matter how you sugar-coat it, that's what it amounts to.
In the 1970s television producers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean we're finally beginning to realize the potential for theatrical presentations offered by their medium. While movies were limited in their length by how long you hoped you could keep an audience seated at one go, television offered the opportunity to create far longer presentations split up into episodes and broadcast over a period of days or weeks. In North America the mini-series epidemic started on a high note with an adaptation of Roots but eventually disintegrated into tawdry soap operas like The Thorn Birds.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the British began mining their literary history and figures from history for their efforts, and in 1978 released a thirteen-episode presentation on the life of Lillie Langtry entitled simply Lillie. Thirty years after its initial television presentation Acorn Media has gathered together all thirteen episodes onto four DVDs and will be offering this package up for sale as of February 19, 2008.
Originally broadcast on Granada Television in England and then seen in America on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, Lillie faithfully recreates the life of Lillie Langtry and follows her from her Jersey Island home as she cuts a swathe through London society, and parlays her belle of the ball role into a successful stage career. As is usual for British television, the strength of the series lies in its acting and its script. David Butler and John Gorrie collaborated on a script that managed the remarkable feat of balancing a respect for detail, while never seeming to linger overlong in one area. It was also brave enough in its depiction of the central character that you're never quite sure if you like her, but you almost always admire her, for her stamina, if nothing else.
They make no secret of the way in which she used her first husband to gain a first foothold in society, and do nothing to disguise the fact that she neglected and belittled him. While she was having affairs with everyone from the Prince of Wales, an old flame from back home, and others, he was her symbol of propriety. Whenever it was required, she could trot out the husband and give the appearance of being the properly married woman.
I don't know how British television manages it, but when they want to they can assemble a cast of thousands (I think there were something like 1,000 characters in this production of Lillie), and from the footman with two lines to the lead roles, every one of them is spot on. In the lead role of Lillie, Francesca Annis is really quite remarkable. She is as convincing in her performance when Lillie is fifteen as she is when portraying her at the end of her life. Although she is ably assisted by make-up and wardrobe every step of the way, she also manages to add the right nuances to her depiction to make each age believable.
Annis' Lillie is not just a one-dimensional beauty either. As befits an actor who had already played Lady Macbeth (in Roman Polanski's notorious film production) she is able to bring out all sides of the character, from her genuine affection for her friends to her shameless use of flattery and her own physical beauty to manipulate people. Her Lillie is both charming and calculating, and ultimately a pragmatist. She knows that her affair with the Prince of Wales won't be anything more than a fling; he is married and royalty after all, so she knows she has to parlay it into something tangible that will last beyond their times in bed.
The other truly wonderful performance given in this series is Peter Egan as Lillie's best friend Oscar Wilde. At times while watching the series it's easy to forget that all the characters depicted are real people. So it is a little disconcerting at first to see historical figures appear on the screen. Oscar Wilde is one of the first of many real people we meet during the course of watching and it's to Peter Egan's credit that we quickly stop thinking of him as "The" Oscar Wilde and he very quickly becomes Lillie's friend Oscar.
I think one of the reasons Egan's characterization works so well is because he is able to convey how Oscar Wilde played the part of Oscar Wilde. We see in his portrayal the face that Wilde had to present to society, that of the bon vivant who could always be counted upon for the witty saying and the intelligent opinion and the man forced to hide the truth of his own sexuality. Of course, in the end he is left out to hang by all of society when he was prosecuted, and the only one to stand by him was Lillie.
In some ways Oscar is Lillie's means of redemption in the eyes of the script writers, as she shows that she can be loyal and think of someone other than herself on occasion. Of course it was Oscar who was her first champion when she first showed up in London, and introduced her to those who would make her famous.
There aren't many special features that come with the DVD package of Lillie, except for an essay on Lillie Langtry's influence on pop culture showing her to be one of the first celebrities for celebrity's sake and not for having done anything of distinction. That her legacy includes people like Paris Hilton is more a reflection on low standards than on Lillie's character, and she can't be blamed for our current fascination with the talentless and brainless.
Acorn Media's four-DVD package of the British mini-series Lillie is a wonderful opportunity to see one of the great mini-series of the 1970s again. It was a wonderful production then, full of great performances and beautiful settings, and remains so today. Even thirty years later it matches up favourably to anything that's been produced in recent years, and is probably better than most of what is being made today.