by Jon Bastian
Seven fascinating glimpses into British History
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Acorn Media’s release of the 1983 British Series Number 10 is a tasty box of history for Anglophiles and history buffs, detailing the lives of seven prime ministers, some famous and some forgotten, in one hour costume dramas that manage to compress a lot of information into small packages. True, better known modern PMs are not on display here – no Chamberlain, no Churchill, no Eden, Macmillan or Heath; Thatcher was in power when the series was produced, and Major, Blair and Brown followed. Still – covering a time period from Pitt the Younger to Ramsay McDonald, there’s a century and a half of British history here, with the perhaps predominant theme being this: plus ça change…
Whether it’s Benjamin Disraeli trying to establish British hegemony in the Bosphorus Straight or Pitt the Younger trying to keep Napoleon from screwing with Europe; Ramsay Macdonald trying to avoid being tarred as a Communist and Gladstone trying to not be called a whoremonger, the overall picture that emerges in these seven stories is this: Politics is a strange business, and the wheeling and dealing that takes place behind the ancient doors of Number 10 makes perfect sense as revealed here, yet would make for a bloody mess when revealed to the public.
Perhaps this is why the most modern Prime Minister on view first took office in 1924, and the series is only concerned with his first Ministry, ignoring his second (1929 to 1931) and third (1931 to 1935.) This would be Ramsay MacDonald, the first and only Socialist Prime Minister, elected at a time when anti-Bolshevik sentiment in Europe and the world was at its height. Determined to rule by being honest at all times, the MacDonald portrayed in this episode is a tragic figure, one who fails because he sticks to his policies. (Left unstated is that he proceeded to sell out and take office two more times, moving further to the center to do so.) Still, the MacDonald portrayed here is a very sympathetic and heroic figure – a common man who comes to office to do good, until he’s blindsided by Realpolitick. (To be fair, though, the seeds for this transformation are planted in his episode, the audience left to fill in the blanks. Brits might do so; Americans probably won’t. Imagine it as if Al Gore were elected president for one term, skipped a term or two, then came back as the pro-pollution candidate, financed by coal miners and big oil.)
Every episode of this series stands on its own, and it’s impossible to rank one above the other. They are also presented out of chronological order, but that’s half the fun, because events in one episode reflect back on events in others – for example, The Duke of Wellington must deal with a corpulent King George IV, who is set up several episodes later as William Pitt the Younger deals with both George III and his own genetic condition. And the unresolved suffrage movement most noticeable in Episode 5 echoes in Episode 6 – in which Benjamin Disraeli is obsessed with women, or Episode 1, in which William Gladstone makes it his mission to save fallen women (aka “whores”) with no clue that his soliciting women of the evening late at night in Whitechapel might be misconstrued.
If there is any weakness in the series it’s in the length of the episodes. Constrained to one hour, it sometimes feels like the author, Terence Feely, was forced to consult the official biography, then shoehorn in a few greatest hits, and there is the occasional moment when a line of dialogue from a PM comes across as “Famous aphorism required by producers.” Still, Feely managed to avoid doing a heavy-handed job of it, and manages to give us the necessary exposition without shoving it down our throats.
The actors on display here do a phenomenal job, with a few standouts. As MacDonald, Ian Richardson (From Hell) hits exactly the right note as an honest man in a dishonest field, who only realizes too late that sticking to one’s principals is not an asset in politics. Gladstone as incarnated by Denis Quilley (TV’s A.D.) is a force to be reckoned with, a man who can shut up anyone with a glance and a cocked eyebrow, but who is not above dissolving into complete vulnerability while confessing his deep self-doubts to his son, who is also an Anglican Minister. Equally indomitable is Bernard Archard (Krull) as Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington, a post-Regency Prime Minister (although that was not the title at the time) who doesn’t believe that a solider can be a politician while showing that soldiers are perhaps the only men world-weary enough to succeed at governance. Probably not intentionally, Archard bears an uncanny resemblance in full costume and make-up to another soldier-politician who was an exact contemporary of Wellington – American President Andrew Jackson – and, at least for a history geek like me, this episode left me postulating a meeting between these two giants.
On the distaff side, Dorothy Tutin (Savage Messiah) turns in a powerhouse performance as Margot Asquith, free-spirited and strong-willed wife to H. H. Asquith, the one man possibly most responsible for dragging the British Parliament kicking and screaming into the 20th Century by enforced Parliament packing designed to outnumber the rich and greedy Tories with equally rich but more liberal commoners.
If there’s a weak spot in the casting, it’s Richard Pasco (Mrs. Brown) as Benjamin Disraeli, but the fault is not the actor’s. He’s fabulous in the role, but much is made of “Dizzy” being in his 70s, while Pasco looks not very far beyond fifty, make-up notwithstanding. This actually works against the story, as Disraeli flirts with various women. Looking fifty, one wonders why much older matrons would reject him, especially because of his power. If he looked in his seventies, this aspect of the story would have made more sense.
As the unsung main character of the series, the set for Number 10 itself is metamorphic; silent but constant. The part of this place that seems to change the least is the cabinet room, with the same red folders on the same big table from the early 19th through early 20th centuries. This is, perhaps, making a very subtle point about government.
“Number 10” is well worth a look, especially as a primer of the games that must be played in the corridors of power. Ever wonder why your favorite politician can promise you the moon and then not even deliver the stars once in office? Ever wonder why it looks like your generations One Great Problem is about to be solved, but then nothing happens for two generations? Ever wonder why government never seems to do anything to benefit anyone but themselves? Well, here are seven little examples that give us the backroom dealings, the personal successes and failures, and the ins and outs at a simple little house called Number 10.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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