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Sparkles like champagne
on May 1, 2011
Who says Masterpiece Theatre is boring? One of their most entertaining series has been "The Bretts," a sparkling soap opera set in the roaring 20s. It suffers from some random plot twists (and character departures), but is entertainingly soapy fun.
Charles and Lydia Brett (Norman Rodway, Barbara Murray) were the stars of the 1890s stage, with his costume dramas and their shared romantic comedies. Now they live with three of their kids: party-girl actress Martha (Belinda Lang), not-so-successful actor Edwin (David Yelland) and blooming socialist playwright Thomas (George Winter).
The series opens rather weakly, when Charles and Lydia briefly break up over Charles hiring a sexy secretary, and his new swashbuckler almost bombs. But things stabilize as the main problems arise -- stages are being replaced with silver screens. Soon Edwin has become a hot Hollywood star, with the movie adaptation of his dad's latest play.
Charles is determined to keep the London stages from being overtaken, and refuses to have anything to do with the movies (though he's willing to vacation at Edwin's villa). But the biggest drama is BEHIND the scenes: secret pregnancies, drug addictions, scam artists, rape, murder, heart attacks, trips to decadent Berlin, lawsuits, illegitimate children, the IRA, fatal illnesses, shattered engagements, illicit affairs, and much more.
Basically, "The Bretts" is about packing as much drama as possible into a matter of episodes. And it's even more entertaining, since it's set in the sparkling era between world wars, with plenty of flappers, spangled clothing, communism, and glamorous homes in the South of France.
And the tragedies and drama -- Martha partying to forget her lost loves, Edwin's suspended contract -- are tempered by comedy (the near-disastrous Cinderella play). And just when you think things are going to calm down, some dirty secret or problem arises, and the Bretts are back to slinging witty repartee at one another.
One of the biggest storylines is the elder Bretts resisting the movies, as their kids accept that this is the way of the future. You want Charles to succeed, yet know that ultimately he's going to fail -- or else accept that movies are here to stay, and that he better get involved.
But it's not perfect. The writers seem to have made it up as they went along, causing a previously unknown sister (the rather flat Perdita) to pop up in one episode, when she had never been mentioned before. Two supporting characters vanish with little explanation and are never referred to again, and one adorable character dies for... no reason, really. He just does.
Rodway and Murray are the stars here. Charles and Lydia are strong-willed actors both, which leads to some arguments, and yet Rodway and Murray bring across how much they love and depend on each other -- even due to past transgressions, such as an affair that produced a child.
The supporting actors vary in strength: Lang is languidly brilliant as the sardonic, talented Martha, but Yelland is stiff, and Winter's Thomas is just a naively twerpy Communist. The servant actors are excellent, though, and so are Charles' ancient-but-still feisty parents.
"The Bretts" has a lot of dangly threads and awkwardly dropped characters, but this sprawling soapy drama is loads of fun. Long live the stage!