"Masterpiece Theatre" was originally designed to show dramatized versions of great classics or of historical periods from England's past. "The First Churchills" led the way and many a great adaptation of a novel or a biography has followed. (Alas, a lot of junk was soon considered "masterpieces" and the glory of the series faded.) Among the best of them was the 13-part miniseries titled "Lillie," and it is now available in a boxed set of Acorn Media DVDs. Grab it!
Part of the plot of the 1940 film "The Westerner" is concerned with Judge Roy Bean's infatuation with an English actress named Lillie Langtry. That character shows up in "Lillie" just once but memorably, but the scene does raise the question of how just another pretty face could so become the rage of England and America without its owner having any other particular talents (they say her acting was amateurish at best)--except an iron will to get what she wants and a high degree of intelligence.
As played by Francesca Annis, whose own good looks make the story believable, Lillie suffers an early disillusionment when she marries Mr. Langtry (brilliantly played by Anton Rodgers) because he is a "gentleman" (= an utterly useless person) with a yacht. Then she quickly realizes he has far less fortune than she thought and even less understanding of how a wife should be treated (after their wedding night, he spends the rest of the day in town). In the years that follow, although she becomes the mistress of the Prince of Wales (Denis Lill) and of several other men, Langtry doggedly refuses a divorce--and his end is possibly just what he deserves or rather a bit more than he deserves. The very fact that I wonder about this shows how deeply I felt for these characters as I again watched this 672-minute miniseries, which was first shown on American public television in 1979.
Actually, my fondest memories of "Lillie" are of the unforgettable Oscar Wilde of Peter Egan. Having seen Robert Morley, Peter Finch and others play the role, I have to call Egan's Wilde the very best. If one views only those scenes in which he appears, the price of the set would still be worth it.
The cast list on the Internet Movie Database runs for seven pages, and I refer my readers to that website. I ran off a copy and kept it near my chair to identify familiar faces along the way, one of which was that of Jennie Linden who portrays Lillie's closest friend, Patsy Cornwallis-West.
I will be replaying this one over the years to come. Ten stars out of ten.
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