The late British novelist, John Mortimer, is most famous for his series of novels featuring the barrister Horace Rumpole. Rumpole Of The Bailey, in particular, went on to have enormous success as a television show on both sides of the Atlantic. A barrister himself, Mortimer defended Virgin records when they were charged with obscenity for including the word bollocks in the title of the Sex Pistols album, Never Mind The Bollocks. Thus, it's not surprising that he had great success with novels about life in and around the London courts, specifically The Old Bailey, the infamous criminal court. However, that didn't stop him from branching out into writing about other matters, including his satirical look at British social mores and the class structure in Paradise Postponed and its sequel, Titmuss Regained.
As with Rumpole, both books made a successful transition to the small screen in 1986 and 1991, respectively, and now they have made the move to DVD. On Tuesday October 6, Acorn Media will be releasing the five DVD set, Paradise Postponed/Titmuss Regained (with the first four discs comprising Paradise Postponed and the last one, Titmuss Regained). While the age of the original episodes means they are in full-screen format and the sound is merely Dolby digital stereo — instead of the wide screen and surround sound of which most of us are now accustomed — that by no means detracts from both the quality of the writing and acting that are on view in all five discs.
Paradise Postponed tells the story of the Simcox family — brothers Henry (Peter Egan) and Fred (Paul Shelly), their father Reverend Simeon Simcox (Micael Hordern) — and Leslie Titmuss through a series of flashbacks that traces the interrelationship between the family and Titmuss from the time the boys are all children up to the present day. As the series opens, noted social activist and wealthy brewery owner Reverend Simeon Simcox is clearly reaching the end of his life. So it's no surprise when he soon passes away. What is surprising to the press and family who attend the funeral, though, is the appearance of Conservative cabinet minister Leslie Titmuss. The Reverend, he tells anybody who will listen, was always very good to him as a child, and he was attending the funeral not as a representative of the government, but as an old friend of the family.
That he is an old friend of the family comes as a bit of surprise to the family — the mother referred to him as that odious little boy when he was a child and still does to this day — but that's not the worst surprise that's in store. For it seems that Simeon Simcox has left his rather considerable fortune not to his sons as would be expected, but to Leslie Titmuss. At a loss as to explain how their father could have done something so "irrational" as leave everything to someone who is the antithesis of everything they believe in, Henry Simcox is convinced their father had taken leave of his senses in his last days and vows to contest the will on the grounds his father was not in his right mind.
Yet, as we learn in our travels into the past, Simeon Simcox was always taking an interest in Leslie Timuss' life. The other members of the family and their circle of friends might either do their best to ignore him or treat him badly, but the Reverend, no matter how obnoxious or obsequies the boy acts, can't seem to turn him away. While it might be possible the Reverend feels sorry for the child for the way others treat him, the truth of the matter is that Leslie Titmuss is neither very likeable as a boy nor as an adult. He has the unerring habit of always saying or doing the wrong thing, which either ends up making him look a fool or a jerk. However, neither of Simeon's sons come off much better, with Henry the eldest being mean and selfish and Fred just turning out to be ineffectual.
The secrets that tie Titmuss to the Simcoxs — and other assorted dirty linen — come out over the course of the series until finally all the pieces fit into place. Those used to the faster pace of American television shows might find Paradise Postponed a little slow at first, but your patience is rewarded by the fine performances and the quality of the scripts. While there's very little to recommend about Leslie Titmuss when you first meet him — and he remains incredibly hard to warm up to over the course of the series — David Threlfall does a masterful job of inserting just enough humanity into his characterization that you can't end up feeling both a little sorry and respectful toward him. It's a good thing too, because Titmuss Regained wouldn't work at all if that weren't the case.
In the sequel, Titmuss still carries with him the resentments of his youth against the privileged who laughed at him, but now he's in a position of power that allows him to look down on them. However, that doesn't stop him from wanting to fill the hole in his life left by the death of his wife in Paradise Postponed. A chance meeting with the widowed Jenny Sidonia (Kristin Scott Thomas) at a lunch in Oxford opens the door to romance in his life and he stumbles through in his usual blustery manner. Much to the shock of Jenny's liberal friends she actually begins to respond to his advances and agrees to marry him. However, while one can understand her initial attraction to Titmuss, it's not long before cracks start to appear in their relationship.
There's also trouble at the office for Titmuss as his ministry, responsible for development and planning, is studying plans for the construction of a housing development and infrastructure in the rural area where he not only spent his childhood, but has just bought a stately home for his new bride. While on the one hand he makes public speeches deriding those wishing to protect "unspoiled countryside" as selfish and looking to protect their privileged lifestyle, on the other the last thing he wants is a new town plopped down in his own back yard. As if that weren't bad enough, his new bride strikes up a friendship with the head of the local protest group against the development, none other than Fred Simcox.
Like the earlier series, Titmuss Regained is a wonderfully written and masterfully acted piece of television. Not only has Mortimer written an elegant story that satirizes both sides of the political spectrum in England — the snobbery of old money, and the callousness of the new conservatism of Margaret Thatcher — the script and the actors bring all the characters to life in a way that's rarely seen on television or film these days. With the exception of Jenny Sidonia, none of the characters in either Paradise Postponed or Titmuss Regained are completely sympathetic. While this might make it difficult to watch if one requires a character to identify with in order to enjoy something, the upside is that it makes for highly realistic and intelligent television. This evenhanded approach towards characterization also allows the viewer to make his or her own decisions as to who their sympathies lie with. Although, in the end, you might just want to wash your hands of the lot of them.
Originally produced in the the 1980's and early 1990's when new conservatism in Britain was still fresh in everyone's memories, Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained don't lose any of their bite for no longer being contemporary. They both so perfectly recapture the era and the people on both sides of the political divide in England at the time that it remains just as potent a piece of television as it was twenty some years ago when it first aired. As a result, it is one of the best pieces of social satire you're liable to see for quite some time to come.