Genre: Witty Comedy of Manners
“I suppose I should warn you, I lock my door at night.”
“Not to worry, . . . only the snow will be wanting to get in.”
“On Approval” is a late 1920s play written by Frederick Lonsdale which has twice been made into movies and was later presented by the BBC in a televised production in 1982. I first saw the 1944 film, which has been shifted in time to the late Victorian age and which I’d like to review at a later time, and while searching for information about it, I discovered that the 1982 version was done. It has a stellar rating at the IMDB but doesn’t appear to have been ever released as either a DVD or even a VHS tape. This, of course, is like waving a red flag in my face. The hunt was on. Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to discover how to watch it and if you have access to youtube, you can too.
Rich, spoiled and domineering widow Maria Wislake (Penelope Keith) can’t quite decide if she likes long time friend and admirer Richard (Benjamin Whitrow) enough to marry him. Her first marriage taught her that men can “appear to be everything desirable in a man” while in reality they are anything but. Her young and wealthy friend Helen (Lindsay Duncan), laughs but then perks up her ears at Maria’s plan which is to take Richard with her to her country estate in Scotland for a platonic month. At the end of that time, Maria will either know that she and Richard can be happy in marriage or, should things not work out, she’ll give Richard train fare back to London and there’s nothing lost.
Meanwhile, Richard and George, 12th Duke of Bristol have been discussing Richard’s love for Maria. Egotistical George (Jeremy Brett) thinks Richard is mad. He’s known Maria as long as Richard and thinks her an irritating nag. George also tells Richard that the next day he is to meet with his advisors because he is financially destitute. His choice is to marry a wealthy woman or be broke. Luckily, he feels that Helen – the daughter of a man who made a mint in pickles – will do for a Duchess.
The characters change places and Maria puts her proposal to a delighted Richard who accepts, thinking that at last he’ll have as a wife the woman he’s always loved. Later George announces to Richard that he will journey up the next day with Helen in order for them to help things along though in reality George really hopes to throw a spanner in the works while Helen hopes to land George. The shocked Scottish servants will have none of it and promptly decamp leaving the two couples stranded. At the end of a month, will love triumph or will eyes have been opened?
This is well done for a television production which is not surprising since it’s the BBC. The costumes and sets are superb and I only wish the quality of the recording was worthy of them. But as the youtube episodes are taken from an old VHS recording taped from TV, we have to accept what we’ve got. Still, it’s actually not too bad and since it doesn’t look like there will be a professionally restored version anytime soon, one must soldier on.
And with the stellar cast involved, the soldiering is well worth it. Penelope Keith is wonderful as a managing Englishwoman who would make a roomful of generals quake in their boots. Jeremy Brett matches her in aristocratic arrogance. He is a Duke to the tips of his fingers and quite happy to allow Helen to wait on him. It takes a while before Lindsay Duncan can let loose with her feelings for him but once she does, she is a tower of strength who can prick his pretensions with the tact of a lady born. Benjamin Whitrow might begin as a mannerly milksop but once he’s made up his mind, he too makes his feelings known in no uncertain terms. Half of the fun is watching all four of them deliver their lines with pitch perfect timing and expressions that say far more than the polite words allowed to pass their lips.
Only the English could possibly deliver such verbal thrusts and still sound so well mannered. The elegant ripostes are spoken in precise, cut glass accents with elegant nonchalance. The four characters are magnificently insulting and take deadly aim at each other with the result that I was laughing almost the whole time. Sniping has never been so much fun to listen to. Go ahead, watch it at work. It’s only 80 minutes. You know you deserve it.
Alright, how can you watch it? Cut and paste this link http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0C2317FBF2F79405&feature=plcp and it should take you to a screen with all 7 parts listed plus an intro featuring Alistair Cooke. Note: just typing in “On Approval” will require some digging to find this as the person who put it up uses the Greek alphabet for some of the lettering.