Wednesday, January 2, 2013

DVD Review: Lillie

Lillie: The Complete Series 4 Discs (672 min)
Released by Acorn Media on January 1, 2013. SRP $49.99 (DVD)

Back in October I posted a review for The Duchess of Duke Street which was released by Acorn Media and someone on a forum I posted my link to respond to let me that Acorn was also going to re-release the television series Lillie. I was not that familiar with this series, only hearing the name of it prior to that post. At the time I did not know why this person wanted to let me know that Lillie was going to be released soon or what sort of connection it had to The Duchess of Duke Street. Once the set showed up for me to review and I started into it, all was revealed to me immediately.
So, what is the link between The Duchess of Duke Street and Lillie? Well, nothing really, at least not directly. They both feature very strong female characters which each series based off of real people. These series take place roughly the same time as each other as they have one link and that is to the Prince of Wales who would eventually become King Edward VII. They were both lovers of the Prince but at separate times. In fact, the Prince of Wales (or affectionately called Bertie) plays a significant role in both series too. It may sound odd but I make these comparisons are not to compare per se but for me to help get a contextual idea of what this series was about. I would say Lillie is almost a cross between The Duchess of Duke Street and I Claudius. It is a 13 episode series and it covers the life of Lillie from the age of 15 and onwards. It truly is a whirlwind both as a series and as her life. In her life, it shows that many people wanted to be like her but few could keep up with her lifestyle.

The series is about the life of Lillie Langtry. It is important to understand that the series is not only based on the real life of this person but follows it closely. In the series, Lillie was born in Jersey. Jersey is an island that is a British Crown Dependency just off the coast of Normandy. Lillie had success in her life as being one of the most talked about socialites in London. Soon after moving to London, the Prince of Wales sought her out to be his mistress, she became a world famous actress, had great success in thoroughbred racing, had many famous friends such as Oscar Wilde, and was instinctively sound with investments. All of this was covered in the TV series as this was her real life. If someone didn’t know that going into it, they may think this was some kind of fantastical production but this is the amazing life she led. The only area that she was never really good at was choosing men. She was only married twice but had many affairs. Lillie was unwilling or unable to marry the men who truly cared for her but would marry men who she grew tired of or at least one relationship where she was often beaten.  
It’s always interesting when watching a new series because so often it goes into a completely different direction than where I thought it would go. The first couple of episodes of the series are a little slow. We start off by seeing what life is like for Lillie in Jersey. She is a bit of a tomboy as she loves to ride horses and play with her brothers. She is the daughter of the Dean of Jersey. Immediately we see something which becomes prevalent throughout the series. Most men love her at first sight. I literally mean first sight. It is almost as if they are put under a spell when their eyes meet Lillie’s. I have to admit that this does become a little tedious as time goes on because it happens so much but that was the power of Lillie Langtry. In the beginning, one of the boys she is really interested in turns out (unbeknownst to her) to be her own half-brother. Her father has always been scandalous in the sense that he had multiple affairs with other women. Unfortunately, this will be something of a curse that Lillie will also take with her as she marries Edward (Ned) Langtry.

When we meet Ned, he appears to be very well to do. He has a successful shipping business. He marries Lillie and things suddenly appear to go wrong. Ned is financially in trouble. He does not have the money he thought he did; he actually gets an allowance from his family. He needs to sell his business and all of his yachts. He doesn’t want to work because he is a gentleman and gentlemen do not work. I wish I was a gentleman. To make matters worse, Lillie contracts Typhoid fever. Through her own strength, she survives the fever but feels the best way to fully recover is if her and Ned pack up everything and move to London. This is an idea that Ned loathes but he wants to help out his wife. The relationship between Lillie and Ned is not very good in any respect. Both Lillie and Ned hope that this may help them become a closer couple. This will never happen.
In London, Lillie meets up with family friends that are known to her parents. Because Lillie’s father was Dean of Jersey, they knew some pretty influential people. This got Lillie and Ned invited to more and more parties where there would be more important people. What Ned never understood was that attention being paid to his wife by everyone around him was a high form of compliment to him. Ned was never any good with conversation and was considered by many of the people at these parties as a bore. Lillie on the other hand was being talked about in social circles. She started to get noticed by people in the artist community. Portraits of her done by such people as Frank Miles cemented her into the public life enough to be noticed by the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales, or Bertie, became Lillie’s lover. They had a long standing affair where everyone knew that she was Bertie’s mistress yet, of course, it was never talked about to anyone. This included his wife. The only person who does not know of what is going on is Ned. As Lillie becomes more popular, the more Ned becomes ostracized from her life.  They eventually separate and live different lives but the one thing Lillie really needs is something Ned refuses to do. He will not give her a divorce and because of English law at the time Lillie could not begin proceedings. Ned needed to agree to it.

I could go on with a more detailed plot of how the series progresses but the fun of this series is finding it out by watching it. Lillie does eventually takes over everything she sets out to do. With it come some great losses. The question I think will inevitably come up if someone watches this series from start to finish is how much of a manipulator is Lillie? Is she someone who started out innocently and gets caught up in her own drama or did she not care who she hurt down the road in her life? In this series there are people who are forever supportive of her and the other side is of people who are initially friends/lovers with her and get burned. I think people could look at it both ways; I don’t think either opinion would be wrong.
Once again, if I didn’t know this is closely based on real events it would seem completely over the top. The series roughly covers from 1868 – 1929. Many characters are woven into the storyline. Some you think are gone for good only to show up again a few episodes later. Others that are thought to be permanent disappear to never be seen again. This series is made by LWT (London Weekend television) and ran as 13 episodes in the UK from Sep – Dec 1978. It ran in the US on Masterpiece Theatre. It was shot like many of the other British television series at the time which is interiors shot in studio on videotape and exteriors are shot on film.  I actually really enjoy this unique look which I feel is the quintessential look of British television. What I thought was interesting were all the scenes that would take place during big balls with royalty and other large elegant events. These scenes were stocked with extras (actors) all in period costume. There would be scenes in restaurants full of people and activity. What struck me was that the scenes were short. It’s cool to see so much detail on screen for very little time. Remember that this series takes place over a number of years so there are a lot of costume design and fashion changes over those years. By the time we get to the end, Lillie is an old woman. This transformation happens over the course of 2 episodes and the make up for her is brilliant. It is not making someone wrinkly and adds a grey wig. She is much heavier but her spirit and her red hair is still there. In I Claudius, when Claudius gets older, it is obviously that the “old man” make up is applied but for Lillie, it is quite sensible and really effective. It made me wonder how they did that.

Lillie is played by Francesca Annis. She is great in this. Lillie was a very confident and powerful problem solver. She was a strong and intelligent woman that Francesca brings out with ease. Of course this is not the first time she played the part of Lillie. She plays her in 2 episodes of the series Edward the Seventh in 1975. Over on my column at DVDTalk called Brit-Streaming, I am going to review the episodes of Edward the Seventh on Acorn TV which is known on there as Edward the King. Along with Francesca Annis, there are two actors that I thought were absolutely amazing. First is Peter Egan who plays Oscar Wilde. Wilde is elusive yet fun. He clearly admires and loves Lillie. There is a point (because of Lillie’s own vanity) that the two don’t speak for a couple of years. Wilde makes the first move for them to reconcile in which they virtually pick up where they left off. Over time, Lillie is one of Wilde’s few friends left as he was being tried in court for sodomy. Egan has been in programs such as A Perfect Spy, Ever Decreasing Circles, and Downton Abbey. The other is Denis Lill. Denis played the Prince of Wales. The characterization of him was great. Denis is probably my favorite character actor because every role he plays is so believable. He can show up as an everyday guy in stuff like Rumpole of the Bailey and Only Fools and Horses to roles I didn’t even recognize him in such as Sir George Hutchinson in Doctor WhoThe Awakening. One of my favorite roles he played was Major Benjy Flint in Mapp & Lucia. He is so good in everything he touches that I feel when he was on screen, he made the series better.
Also, a call out needs to be made for Anton Rodgers as Ned. The regression Ned made from the start of the series to the end is shocking and sad. Even as the series went on, there was less need for Ned but when we did see him it was unfortunate because Ned was a broken man. Holding on to what he can. Rodgers made this character compelling and I felt very sorry for him towards the end. Ned was never a bad person, just someone who did not understand what was going on around him and that cost him everything.  Other notable actors in this series were Jennie Linden, a very young Anthony Head, Bruce Boa, David Dixon, Anthony Ainley, John Castle, Annette Crosbie, Stephanie Cole, John Bennett, Nicholas Jones, Michael Shannon, Vernon Dobtcheff, James Warwick, and Carmen Silvera.

Not a ton of extras but I am not someone who needs a ton of extras. I prefer higher video quality rather than extras that are not needed. What we do get is Cast Filmographies on the discs but we also get a pull out piece of paper that is an essay about Lille Langtry written by Shannon Cox. Like I mentioned above, I think this is actually necessary to understand how amazing Lillie’s life was as a media mogul.

The video quality on these episodes is quite good. There was one episode that was suffering from some video problems but it didn’t last long and was quickly forgotten. The one thing that is missing from these episodes is the LWT opening and closes to each episode. This is the bit with a red, white, and blue line comes down from the top of the screen to form the letter LWT. To me, this is part of the episode and their absence is unfortunate. I doubt this has anything to do with Acorn Media as the episodes end with the ITV Studios logo which is new. This was how the episodes were given to Acorn Media and I doubt there is anything they could do about it. Also, there are no ad caps to the episodes. There would be ad caps as this was run on ITV which is a commercial network. Ad Caps is the but prior to the commercial break that would say “End of Part One” and after the break was over would say “Part Two”. They are nice to have on the discs but most people in the US would not notice they were ever missing so I am just going to come across as picky.

We get a regular DVD amary case that fits four discs into it. It’s very compact and it’s perfect; it doesn’t take up much space at all. It also has a sleeve that goes over the case which I quite like.

Lillie is a great ride. I watched all of it in a few sittings to get ready for this review. My recommendation is to get this set and take your time with it. Don’t rush it but enjoy it. If needed, rewind and re-watch bits you missed. It’s a series I recommend but there are a lot of characters who come and go with a lot goings on. It’s amazing they were able to keep it all straight but they did and it makes for some very enjoyable 1970s television.
Disc breakdown:

Disc 1: Emilie, Mrs. Langtry, The Jersey Lily, The New Helen
Disc 2: Bertie, Let Them Say, The Sailor Prince

Disc 3: Going on the Stage, America, Home on the Range
Disc 4: Mr. Jersey, Sunset and Evening Star, Fifty Cents a Dance

Upcoming DVD/Blu Ray Reviews: Midsomer Murders – Set 21, Doctor Who: Shada/More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS, since I have just seen them possibly reviewing the two animated episodes of Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror, and Red Dwarf Series X Blu Ray.
This week: I will post article 100 with a look at 2 episodes of Fawlty Towers: Waldorf Salad and The Kipper and the Corpse.

Have a great week!
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Dave G said...

Another period drama that I have been long intending to get. I can't help it, I am a sucker for these, and your review just reinforces the desire. Not enough money and time to account for everything.

Greg said...

It's a good series. The life Lillie lives in is scandelous and crazy. Like I said, for me with Denis Lill in it is a must.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful drama. I've watched it several times since discovering the DVD in a charity shop some years ago. Francesca Annis is one of our loveliest actresses and complemented by many great stars of British theatre and TV. The pace is slower than we've since got used to and all the better for that - the real quality of it has time to sink in. Terrific portraits of Lillie, Oscar, Whistler, the Prince and many other famous/notorious characters, their times and manners. Eat your heart out, Netflix! This is for grown-ups!
Geoff Hill