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Woman of Substance, A (1984)

Main image of Woman of Substance, A (1984)
Portman Artemis Productions for Channel 4, tx. 2-4/1/1985, 3 x 115 min episodes, colour
DirectorDon Sharp
ProducerDiane Baker
ScriptLee Langley
Original NovelBarbara Taylor Bradford
PhotographyErnest Vincze

Cast: Deborah Kerr (Emma Harte); John Duttine (Joe Lowther); Mick Ford (Frank Harte); Peter Egan (Adam Fairley); Peter Chelsom (Edwin Fairley); Jenny Seagrove (Young Emma); Liam Neeson (Blackie O'Neill)

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The saga of Emma Harte, from her humble beginnings working as a maid for a wealthy Yorkshire family, to her eventual success as an international business tycoon.

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A six-hour adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's blockbuster novel, A Woman of Substance successfully encapsulated the 1980s aspirational zeitgeist of Margaret Thatcher's 'enterprise culture'.

The story covers sixty years in the life of Emma Harte, charting her progress from a poor servant girl to being the glamorous owner of 'Hartes', a successful chain of department stores clearly modelled on Harrods (where some of the filming actually took place). She eventually heads a huge international conglomerate through her strong (and utterly ruthless) business sense. The crux of the narrative revolves around the sacrifices that Emma makes to accumulate her fantastic wealth, especially with regard to her family.

The novelettish story is hackneyed in the extreme and its rampant materialism clearly marks the serial as a product of the 1980s, most notably in the scenes featuring Deborah Kerr as the older Emma which bookend the drama. This part of the production, despite decent performances by John Mills and Miranda Richardson (as Emma's heir-apparent Paula), is quite slapdash in execution. Having established that the story begins in 1905 and that Emma is about to celebrate her 80th birthday in the final episode, this means that the setting for the latter should be the late 1960s, but no attempt is made to create any sense of the period, so that it looks like when it was shot, the mid 1980s.

The early part of the story, in which Jenny Seagrove plays the feisty heroine, is much more successful with its busy plot and sympathetic characters (most notably Emma's loyal friend 'Blackie', played by Liam Neeson), even if the period trappings remain fairly generic and some of the scenes sometimes verge on the ludicrous due to over-compression. A good example of this can be found in three consecutive sequences in the second instalment in which Emma, now running her own shop in Leeds, turns down a marriage proposal from her business partner David, is sexually attacked by the evil Gerald Fairley, and then proposed to again, this time by her present landlord (played with gruff charm by John Duttine), all in quick succession.

A Woman of Substance was first shown on Channel Four over three consecutive nights and garnered some of the highest audience figures the channel has ever received. In 1987 Kerr, Mills, Neeson, and director Don Sharp reunited for the sequel Hold The Dream, with Seagrove this time cast as Harte's granddaughter Paula.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
Chelsom, Peter (1956-)
Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Neeson, Liam (1952-)
Richardson, Miranda (1959-)
Channel 4 Drama