The Edwardians is an eight-part BBC TV series that ran in the early 70s, profiling a number of major British personalities in the years leading up to the first world war. The footage has been worked on extensively, and though the quality may not be up to par with today’s standards, the portrayals of important historical characters are illuminating and admirable. Subtitles are available for each episode to supplement the audio quality and intriguing range of accents, originating from Manchester, North Wales, and the Scottish highlands. Most of the series is in black and white, with the exception of the first and final segments. For any Anglophile or lover of 20th century history, this is a great collection.
Mr Rolls and Mr Royce
The first segment in the Edwardians series portrays the roots of the 1904 partnership of Mr Rolls and Mr Royce, two very different men with two very different work ethics. Charles Rolls was born to a life of privilege, and boasts of teaching the Prince of Wales to drive, as well as owning one of the first four motorcars in Britain as an undergraduate student. Frederick Royce talks of being an impoverished child, paid sixpence a week to chase birds away from a farmer’s field. Royce is a chronic workaholic who falls asleep over his machinery and demands that his workers put in long hours attempting to design the world’s most perfect engine. Rolls views the perfect engine as a stepping-stone to ever-greater heights, and moonlights as a hot-air balloon pilot, as well as aspiring to transition from motorcars to airplane engines once he gets his hands on one of the Wright brothers’ creations. Both men possess volatile tempers and devote their energies to mechanical things rather than the people around them. Ultimately the partnership ends when Rolls’ desire to conquer the air leads to his death in a plane crash, leaving Royce to carry on building quality engines, the foundation for the quality vehicles still on the market today.
Timothy West portrays rogue financier and great public orator Horatio Bottomley in this installment. Along with constantly quaffing champagne, toting around contemporary actresses of questionable morals, and ordering his right hand swindler man Tommy Cox (Henry Woolf) about, Bottomley comes up with scheme after scheme to keep money coming in and various businesses up and running. A smooth talker, Bottomley represents himself at a trial where he and his shady companies have lost a million pounds of investors’ money; though they have nothing to show for the loss, Bottomley gets off scot-free. Later on, an angry shareholder comes along to demand a return on his lost 15,000 pounds, only to end up being talked into writing a check for another 3,000 for a new investment scheme.
Bottomley was skilled at saying what people wanted to hear, and throwing in jokes to lighten the mood of a courtroom or shareholder’s meeting, as well as earn people’s trust. Bottomley became an MP after buying the Financial Times, and then invented his own paper, John Bull. The paper taps into the common public interest in scandal, gossip, and muck-raking. Though the rag earns a good deal of money, Bottomley never has the cash to satisfy his creditors, and finally a fraudulent investment scheme sinks his business dealings in the eyes of the court. After serving five years in jail, Bottomley appears a broken man, playing a one-man variety show on stage and confusing some of the funnier points of previous speeches, a sad and pathetic old man. West is superb in his depiction of the corrupt, yet influential businessman.
Magical thoughts and childish wishes characterize the portrayal of author Edith Nesbit (Judy Parfitt). One of the first authors of modern children’s stories, Nesbit started her career writing poetry. She was later credited with inventing the genre of children’s adventure stories. Her husband, Hubert Bland (James Villiers), was a womanizer who Nesbit is portrayed as accepting simply because she could not live without him; mutually they considered themselves to be more special than normal people. They thought of themselves as a pair of superior felines, calling themselves Cat and Kitty or Pussycat. Nesbit and Bland’s partnership and unique outlook on life, fanciful and passionate, fostered a strange sort of household.
After taking in a housekeeper, Alice Hoatson (Jane Lapotaire), whom Nesbit christens ‘Mouse,’ a functional, though odd, family formed, as Bland fathered two children with Hoatson and Nesbit took them on as her own. Passionately temperamental, Nesbit declares that everything will be alright with a bit of magic, even when tragic events threaten to dethrone her notion of the way the world works. Informed she is dying of cancer, Nesbit lights another cigarette in her period cigarette holder and sends the doctor away. She refused to die until she was ready.
An episode in the later years of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Nigel Davenport) opens just after the death of his wife, who he laments married a doctor, not a celebrity, which is what he turned out to be, a self-proclaimed seeker of the limelight. Famous in his own time, impudent young fans at the gentlemen’s club clamor for “more Holmes,” as Doyle has been writing other stories, but the author declares that his famous character is “resting.” Despite a charming love interest who has been waiting in the wings for ten years, Doyle finds himself getting involved with a real life detective story. The case turns out to be a sordid case of racism, misappropriated evidence, and ignorant malice. When depicting a raid made by the policemen during the initial investigation, an interesting flashback mechanism is used, with still camera shots rather than moving footage showing the search, rather like a series of snapshots that might have been taken as part of the evidence at a crime scene.
Doyle is passionate about the English justice system, and will not accept a compromise in a situation where the evidence all clearly points to the accused man being innocent. Unfortunately, the justice system is in need of a revamp, as most of the men involved seem more concerned with saving face than with accepting the overwhelming evidence. At the end of the day, Doyle may not have served his notion of justice, but he does get the girl, and as the wedding music fades, a voiceover tells us that in the same year, 1907, a court of criminal appeals was created by statute, due to the shoddy showing of justice in this case and another years before where a man was convicted through false testimony. Sherlock Holmes would no doubt have been impressed with his creator.
This segment opens with the retirement dinner of Major-General Baden-Powell (Ron Moody), who is celebrated for his triumphs in battle as well as his knack for camaraderie. Though “B-P” (as most of his acquaintance call him) is remembered for his heroism, his self-confidence and ego do not keep pace with his reputation and he questions what the next act of his life will consist of. As his career winds down, B-P is portrayed retreating into his memories of exploring the woods as a boy, and the simple skills he learned in nature.
Noting the slouching, unpatriotic lads who populate the country, B-P expresses his opinion often to acquaintances that this will not do. Never one to relax, B-P returns to ideas he had published before his last tour of duty regarding the need for the boys of Britain to learn the survival skills and healthy habits that the Boy Scouts became known for; B-P was the founder of the movement. Andrew Hamilton (Keith Barron) is a reporter who sent dispatches from the South African front where B-P last served, and he makes an excellent foil for B-P, drawing out his hidden qualities and re-energizing the Major-General in his new campaign to re-make the youth of Britain.
The Reluctant Juggler
In this segment, the English music-hall sensation Marie Lloyd (Georgia Brown) is the most well known actor on stage at a time when performers were realizing that they were being taken advantage of by theater owners. Over the course of an evening, several popular performers take turns trying to convince one of their number, the reluctant juggler of the title, to join them in their union and strike for better treatment. The juggler, Alfred, is played by Jack Douglas, who remains dour and depressed through the evening, as he feels pressured to join the actors even as he considers how to support his wife and four children while his popularity as a performer declines. For the most part, the political aspects of this episode not only take place backstage, but take a back seat to the full-length comedic musical performances put on by various actors. The audience gleefully sings along to the crude double entendres of the time, as the performers smile and gesture suggestively; though the audience appear for the most part well-to-do and upstanding, they enjoy a mischievous song just as much as those who cannot afford the tickets.
Alternating between the memoir-writing later years of the debt-ridden Countess of Warwick, and her memories of intrigue at court and a series of affairs, this episode is a delight in its fanciful treatment of the scandalous courtesan. All of her memories of her youth and powerful lovers are staged as though in a play, with a simple white double-staircased backdrop for running up and down as gossip is passed around and reputations are made and broken. In the late 19th century and early 20th, it was acceptable for married ladies to entertain gentlemen of higher social rank (especially if it advanced the careers of their husbands), and “Daisy” (Virginia McKenna) quickly moves to the very top, as mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales (Thorley Walters).
The action focuses largely on Daisy’s succession of lovers (she hesitates to call herself a nymphomaniac) and desire for glamor in her parties and paramours, until she encounters a newspaper editor who disparages one of her extravagant events and converts her to socialism. Queen Victoria is not impressed with the socialist bent of the Prince’s mistress, and commands her minions to find him another woman, a more patriotic and controllable one. The incongruity of actors dressed as working class men singing opera adds a dimension of absurdity to the frolics of the Countess, as she takes on lovers from all walks of life in her newfound freedom from obeisance to the crown. The whirl of parties and ever-younger men could not last forever, however. Suddenly finding themselves penniless, the Warwicks are no longer welcome with their creditors, and finally Daisy hatches a scheme to blackmail the monarchy by threatening to publish the love letters of the late King Edward. King George’s legal council proves too much for her machinations and she is forced to remain silent, finally passing into relative obscurity.
The series ends on a serious note, no song and dance or jugglers here. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of David Lloyd George, the first Welsh Prime Minister, is emotional and gripping. With a slightly lilting accent and flair for drawing every eye in the room with his theatrics, it is marvelous to see Hopkins honing his acting skills in this role. Dark-haired and thickly mustachioed, “LG” is much more comfortable pre-empting a railway strike than being available to his own family when personal tragedy strikes, like the death of his teenage daughter, Mair. As a person he comes across as sneaky and thoughtless, no matter how progressive his political ideas.
Though LG abstains from drinking alcohol, he indulges frequently in the charms of women other than his wife, and gains a reputation for it, inside his family as well as out. Margaret Lloyd George (Annette Crosbie) supports her husband even though she despises his behavior; she recognizes the importance of his work even as he disappoints his family. Hopkins comes across as a little bit loopy in his portrayal, chuckling at his own cleverness as he attempts to set up a pension system and redistribute some of the wealth in Britain by remaking the tax system – it must have seemed quite the crazy idea at the time.
As the Edwardian era draws to a close, World War I threatens and the importance of the British aristocracy is waning. This noteworthy series is a wonderful introduction to a forgotten slice of history, with far-reaching influence on business, politics and culture for the rest of the Western world.