There’s satire, and then there’s Anglo Saxon Attitudes, which makes satire look like ice cream cake and balloons. When I think “satire,” I generally expect a bit of sarcastic laughter, but man, this 1992 British TV miniseries, just out on DVD for the first time, didn’t make me laugh once. Not even a snort of derision. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth checking out: just expect the blackest, snidest, most unfunny application of the concept of satire you’ve ever seen.
Based on the novel by Angus Wilson, this four-hour drama — divided into three episodes of uneven length — feels surprisingly modern, which is a shock if you go into it expecting something Merchant Ivory-esque and stumble unprepared across all the sex and meanspiritedness and hypocrisy and inadequacy and very ungenteel screaming and scheming. Look: the story opens in 1912 with a band of archaeologists digging up a medieval grave in the English countryside that comes complete with a pagan figurine, which itself comes complete with a huge phallus — it’s a fertility thing, okay? except this is the grave of a bishop, so academia reels. But there’s something dodgy about the idol, which historian Gerald Middleton, who was present at the uncovering of the gravesite as a young man, keeps secret for decades.
While Middleton’s keeping his secret, Attitudes jumps around from the 1910s to the 1950s — right into the era in which Wilson wrote and published his 1956 novel — and we discover what a weak, ineffectual dork Middleton has been his whole life. He has a rancid affair with his best friend’s fiancée, then marries a woman he doesn’t love and who is completely wrong for him, and then their kids turn out to be total horrors. Oh, and his career as a historian is a disaster, too. None of it is in the least bit amusing, but I suppose the satire works its way into the fact that you never feel sorry for any of these folks, either — and especially not Middleton — because, honestly, they’ve all engineered their own rotten lives.
Credit legendary TV screenwriter Andrew Davies (Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Doctor Zhivago) with that, as well as the fantastic cast. Richard Johnson and Douglas Hodge (Mansfield Park, Scenes of a Sexual Nature) are a hoot — not a laugh-out-loud hoot, of course, but a contemptible, pathetic hoot — as, respectively, the older and younger Middleton. (Hodge is a bit yummy, too… or he would be if Middleton wasn’t such a loser.) Tara Fitzgerald is the fiancée he has the affair with, and Daniel ““>James Bond” Craig is her cuckolded fiancé — but don’t be too fooled by his appearance on the DVD cover: he’s barely in this (though he does get to be a really entertainingly nasty piece of work when he does appear). Also: Kate Winslet is in about five minutes of the last episode. She looks about 12… well, 16, maybe, but real babyfaced.
So, not exactly your giddy aunt’s Masterpiece Theater, but they don’t allow giant wooden phalluses on PBS, I don’t think.