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Elizabeth R (1971)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Elizabeth R (1971)
BBC1, tx. 17/2-24/3/1971
6 x 90 mins, colour
DirectorsRichard Martin
 Claude Whatham
 Donald McWhinnie
 Herbert Wise
ProducerRodney Graham
WritersJohn Hale
 Julian Mitchell
 John Prebble
 Ian Rodger
 Rosemary Anne Sisson
 Hugh Whitemore

Cast: Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth I), Bernard Hepton (Thomas Cranmer), Robert Hardy (Robert Dudley), Ronald Hines (William Cecil), John Shrapnel (Earl of Sussex), Vivian Pickles (Mary Queen of Scots), Robin Ellis (Earl of Essex), John Woodvine (Sir Francis Drake)

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The life of Queen Elizabeth I, from her teenage years and eventual coronation through to her death in 1603.

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After the great public and critical success of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), the BBC turned hopefully to the turbulent life of the King's daughter, Elizabeth. The approach was essentially the same - six 90-minute plays covering the life of the monarch from youth to old age - and proved to be even more popular.

A sense of continuity was ensured with several actors reprising their roles, including Rosalie Crutchley and John Ronane as Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour and Bernard Hepton and Basil Dignam as the Archbishops Cranmer and Gardiner respectively, while writers John Prebble and Rosemary Anne Sissons also returned. As before, the success of the project would rest mainly on the shoulders of the central actor, and for Glenda Jackson it proved to be the role of a lifetime, eclipsing even her Oscar-winning performances in Women in Love (d. Ken Russell, 1969) and A Touch of Class (US, 1973). She maintains a steely authority and powerful sense of femininity throughout, even in the conclusion, when her face is grotesquely covered in thick white makeup.

John Hale's opening play, 'The Lion's Cub' (tx. 17/02/1971), makes few concessions to viewers not steeped in late-Tudor history, hurtling through a decade of complex events taking in the execution of Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth's guardian, for attempting to topple the sickly King Edward VI, and the crowning of Mary I, before concluding with Elizabeth's coronation in 1558. Internecine plots predominate at court and make for engrossing, if occasionally bewildering viewing, whether dealing with foreign affairs, religious conflicts or Elizabeth's marriage. The 'behind the scenes' approach is fascinatingly explored in Prebble's 'The Enterprise of England' (tx. 17/3/1971), depicting the war with Spain solely through Elizabeth and Philip II's thrust and parry with their respective advisors, omitting battle scenes altogether.

As befits a major BBC historical drama, the requisite splendours of costume and design are emphasised, but originality is also evident: filming the flashbacks to Elizabeth's youth with a subjective camera; building studio sets with ornate ceilings; and the challenging use of dark humour underlining Julian Mitchell's moving depiction of the Queen's marriage problems in 'Shadow in the Sun' (tx. 03/03/1971), in which midgets parody Elizabeth's tribulations.

There was no feature film version as there was for Henry VIII, although Jackson did play Elizabeth again in Mary Queen of Scots (d. Charles Jarrott, 1972), written by Elizabeth R co-author John Hale.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. A strange romance (3:52)
2. 'She'll never marry' (3:54)
3. An honourable estate (3:13)
Complete episode - 'Shadow in the Sun' (1:28:24)
Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)
Jubilee (1978)
Hardy, Robert (1925-)
Jackson, Glenda (1936-)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)