Sunday, January 8, 2012

10 Must-See Classic British TV Series (Part 2 of 3)

Our review of classic British TV series from the 1960s and 1970s continues with: The Pallisers; I, Claudius; and The Duchess of Duke Street. If you missed Part 1 on Poldark, Upstairs Downstairs, and Lord Peter Wimsey, click here.

The arranged marriage between Plantagenet and Glencora.
The Pallisers- Anthony Trollope’s six Palliser novels portrayed the lifestyles and politics of the mid-to-late 19th century. The fine 26-part, 1974 TV adaptation starred Philip Latham as Plantagenet Palliser and Susan Hamsphire as Lady Glencora. For those viewers familiar only with Hampshire’s later work, in lighthearted series such as Monarch of the Glen, The Pallisers will be a revelation. She provides a rich portrait of a privileged woman who grows from a lovesick teenage girl to a strong-willed, socially savvy woman dedicated to her family. Latham is equally compelling as the erudite Plantagenet, whose passion to improve the nation’s economy earns the disdain of more party-minded politicians (who refer to him as Plantypal). My favorite part of the series is the first-third, which focuses on the courtship between Glencora and Plantagenet. Yet, even when the focal point shifts to other characters, The Pallisers remains an engrossing drama that also works as an inside look at British politics. The strong supporting cast includes future stars such as Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, and Anthony Andrews.
Derek Jacobi as Claudius.
I, Claudius – Speaking of politics, such a career could be a short-lived one in early Rome, as shown in this popular 13-part TV adaptation of Robert Graves’ Claudius novels. Spanning roughly 23 BC through 54 AD, I, Claudius is an “autobiography” of the Roman emperor Claudius and shows his gradual rise to power amid his relatives’ political intrigues, family tragedies, and assassinations. As in Graves’ novels, Claudius’ limp and stammer cause treacherous opponents to underestimate his intelligence and will to survive. Derek Jacobi (as Claudius) and Siân Phillips (as the ruthless Livia) head an outstanding cast featuring John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, and George Baker. Although I, Claudius won several awards from the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, it lost the 1978 Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series to Holocaust
The Duchess of Duke Street – The life of Rosa Lewis, rumored to have been a mistress to King Edward VII circa the late 1890s, provided the inspiration for this fictionalized dramatic series. The incomparable Gemma Jones stars as Louisa Leyton, a middle-class woman who aspires to be the greatest cook in London. Taking a chef’s assistant position with a noble family, she achieves her goal. Her culinary delights—and looks—catch the eye of the Prince of Wales, which leads to a “special arrangement.” When the prince becomes king, the affair ends, but his generosity enables Louisa to open a hotel that becomes the setting for the bulk of the series.  With plots that focused on both the hotel’s staff and its typically affluent guests, The Duchess of Duke Street owed some of its success to the earlier Upstairs, Downstairs (producer John Hawkesworth worked on both). However, it was more of a star vehicle and, with Gemma Jones in the lead, that made for absorbing television for two seasons.


  1. I'm not familiar with these series, Rick. I have heard of I, Claudius before, but that's about all I know. I think I'd like all three, as they all have to with historical themes.

  2. Rick, like you I truly enjoy many British television series. I liked "The Pallisers" especially because of the strength of its leads. Plantagenet and Lady Glencora had a wonderful rapport.

    It has been years since I have seen "I, Claudius" but I have always truly enjoyed the work of Derek Jacobi. The story of the Caesar family is fascinating, frightening, and sad.

    "The Duchess of Duke Street" was endearing because of the regular supporting cast, many of whom were employees of the hotel Louisa ran. One was named Starr and he was always accompanied by his little dog Fred, who had his own little bed in the lobby and would greet everyone. I also liked Mary, the Major, and Merriman.

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to British TV. Very well done, Rick!

  3. Can't remember if I ever saw THE PALLISERS. I must have, since I watched very PBS Brit series devotedly over the years.

    But I do remember I,CLAUDIUS. Appalling, intriguing, sad and enlightening, for sure. What a family business! Patrick Stewart's death scene was particularly dreadful and yet you couldn't take your eyes from the screen.

    It was like watching one auto wreck after another on a long highway.

    I do remember enjoying THE DUCHESS OF DUKE STREET.

    Enjoyed reading your tribute very much, Rick.

  4. The Pallisers...I never heard of that one, but it sounds too good to pass up. This month I'm in the British miniseries mood and have been looking for some juicy titles. Thanks for providing them! Right now, I've been on a Rival of Sherlock Holmes binge. That was a good Brit series too.

    1. I've seen--and enjoyed--the second season of THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. It was fun to some future stars like Robin Ellis.