Monday, July 7, 2014

Glenda Jackson Reigns as Queen Elizabeth

A stellar cast carries the day in Elizabeth R, the highly regarded 1971 British miniseries shown on Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S. The compelling subject matter and the first-rate actors—led by Glenda Jackson in the title role--mask what is often a  slow-moving, occasionally creaky historical biography.

Elizabeth R charts the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England, from her days as a young woman through her 45-year reign as queen to her death in 1603. The six episodes, each with a running time of approximately 85 minutes, focus on: the events that lead to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne; her close relationship with Robert Dudley (Robert Hardy); Elizabeth’s near-marriage to France’s Duke of Anjou (Michael Williams); the treason plot involving Mary, Queen of Scots (Vivian Pickles); the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and her complex relationship with the much-younger Earl of Essex (Robin Ellis).

The best episodes are those involving the men in Elizabeth’s life, specifically Dudley, the Duke of Anjou, and Essex.  Each of them love the Queen in their own way, but they are thwarted by rumor (Dudley), politics (Anjou), or greed (Essex). It helps immensely that these historical figures are portrayed by a trio of fine actors.

Robert Hardy as Dudley.
Robert Hardy, best known for playing veterinarian Siegfried Farnon in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small, captures the genuine affection that Dudley feels for his queen. He also makes it clear that Dudley is an ambitious man who faults fate for not having a seat on the throne. Married when childhood sweetheart Elizabeth becomes queen, Dudley's terminally-ill wife suffers an accidental death--or commits suicide--while he's at court. The timing leads to rumors that Dudley may have been involved with her demise. Those suspicions nix his chances of marrying Elizabeth, though they remain lifelong friends and he becomes a powerful royal adviser.

Michael William as the Duke of Anjou.
Michael Williams takes center stage in the third episode as the Duke of Anjou, brother to King Henry III of France. Williams, a veteran stage actor and long-time husband to Dame Judi Dench, brings much-needed humor to his role of the suitor that Elizabeth nicknamed "her frog." Eager to claim a position of similar authority to his brother, Williams' Anjou is a delightful mixture of lazy fop, petulant child, and charming wooer.

Robin Ellis as Essex.
Robin Ellis, best remembered as the handsome hero of the immensely popular Poldark, stars in the last episode as the doomed Essex. Ellis portrays Essex as a likable rascal, who is far too greedy and self-absorbed to appreciate the royal favors bestowed by Elizabeth. He repays her with insolence--at one point, she smacks his head and he partially withdraws his sword, an incident that actually occurred. Poldark fans will no doubt enjoy seeing Ellis in such a different role.

Jackson as the young Elizabeth.
Yet, while these three actors hold their own, it is Glenda Jackson that dominates Elizabeth R. She captures the intricate shadings of Elizabeth, as she ages from teenage princess to powerful ruler to an elderly woman who accepts her life, but not without remorse. She is gleeful when unlikely events fall into place and secures her the throne. She is filled with guilt and anger when her closest advisers convince her to execute her half-sister Mary. She is overcome with grief with she learns of Dudley's death. It's a remarkable performance and one that earned Jackson an Emmy. Ironically, she played Queen Elizabeth again in 1971 in the theatrical film Mary, Queen of Scots, which starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role.

Elizabeth R won a total of five Emmys, including ones for outstanding drama series and costumes. Although it's easy to see why it was held in high esteem, the series is nonetheless inconsistent. The episode about the defeat of the Spanish Armada is flat, mostly because the show's budget required that the battle scenes not be shown (but described by a character after the fact). Although Jackson has a powerful scene near the end, the episode about the treasonous Babington Plot is so convoluted that it's often hard to follow the historical events.

Still, Elizabeth R remains a must-see for fans of historical drama. It is, based on my limited research, remarkably accurate...and the acting is often sublime.


  1. I agree with you completely, Rick. This was a remarkable mini-series made so by remarkable actors even if it did, budget wise, have some weaknesses. Glenda Jackson was Elizabeth - I can never imagine anyone else in the role. Or anyone else saying these lines: 'I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and a King of England too.' One incredible woman played by another.

  2. Robert Hardy as a romantic lead??? This I've got to see! I think this is on Netflix streaming and will check it out. I stumbled upon Fawlty Towers on Amazon streaming the other day and watched the first episode and lo and behold there was Poldark, er, Robin Ellis as an undercover cop with an eye for Polly.

    1. Robert Hardy is VERY romantic and swoonworthily memorable

  3. Since the mini is 40 plus years old it's no surprise that the sets and techniques are a bit antiquated but Glenda Jackson's performance is timeless. Along with The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, with Keith Michell's equally timeless portrayal these are a magnificent example of what England was producing in the 70's. A shame Glenda decided to leave acting for politics she would be tearing the place up now giving Maggie Smith and Judi Dench a run for their money.

  4. Elizabeth had her cousin Mary Queen of Scots executed. Not her half-sister Mary as you state. Mary reigned and died a natural death before Elizabeth.

  5. Glenda Jackson's is the best portrayal of Elizabeth I that I've ever seen. Elizabeth's strength and intelligence and her strong emotions which she has to master to steer herself through turmoil and danger are very well delineated. The acting is very fine and the series pretty historically accurate. You said it was slow but it was wonderful to see the history of these dangerous and exciting times covered in such depth. It was possible to follow the politics and the machinations of the men who were influential in her court.