Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "In Love with Barbara " from 7.11.2008

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2008


BBC 4 seems to have developed a speciality in quirky plays focussing upon British icons of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many tragi-comic figures have received the BBC 4 treatment, including comedians Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams and trailblazing TV cook, Fanny Craddock.

The latest in an entertaining sequence was “In Love With Barbara” written by Jacquetta May, dealing with larger-than-life, Baroque romantic novelist and health-food guru, Barbara Cartland.

The parallels with Fanny Craddock are numerous from pronounced maquillage and startling frocks to outrageous personality and views, all combining to shock, amuse and grab the media spotlight. In doing so, Barbara made piles of money decades before celebrity chefs, popular novelists and even reality TV stars trod the same path to wealth and passing fame or notoriety - whatever the correct term might be.

The production demonstrates the usual lavish values of BBC 4. Sets, costumes and particularly the cars are authentic and appropriately luxe.

Her early life is reflected briefly with a scene straight from E.F.Nesbitt’s “The Railway Children.” Barbara sits demurely with her harassed mother on the steamy platform with soldiers in khaki in the background being told that, with the death of her father, money would be short and that the education of her two brothers at Charterhouse would be a priority.

It would be necessary for Barbara to be sacrificed and learn useful skills such as shorthand and typing to be able to make her way in the world. Selflessly, Barbara acquiesced, applied herself and the die was cast for the early part of her life.

We see the young Barbara hone her journalistic skills and being paid by newspapers for snippets of social gossip. She began to write romantic fiction and set the scene for a productive career, which resulted in 723 novels. Her difficult first marriage is convincingly portrayed with flashes of drunkenness and an unsatisfactory sex life with much resultant knocking on locked bedroom doors whilst hot tears dampen pillows within.

After a scandalous and humiliating divorce, the second marriage to a nice-enough, war-damaged aristo didn’t seem to move Barbara to huge enthusiasm. Her coolness matched her sniffy distaste upon seeing her baby daughter Raine suffering from a bout of infantile eczema.

The traumas of unhappy marriage and trials of motherhood seem to have influenced her attitude on such matters for the rest of her life. Whenever in doubt, Barbara sought solace in front of her trusty typewriter and escaped to an idealised world inhabited by romantic heroes with chiseled jaws and virginal heroines.

As the young Barbara, Sinead Matthews conveyed the multi-faceted quality of her character and the squeaky, cut-glass voice of her time and class wonderfully. Her somewhat gawky and toothy young Barbara was able to manifest vulnerability, drive, hard work, common sense and silliness in quick succession.

Her scene before a charity ball, dressed as an ocean liner, with three funnelled hat and port-holes below, summed up her vivacious charm. She fell somewhere between Joyce Grenfell and Gertrude Lawrence: all shrill gaiety on the brink of bullied despair.

Perhaps the key relationship in the play was with her adored brother Ronald, solidly played by Tom Burke. He contrived a kind of listless, good-natured idealism and integrity somehow typical of his inter-war generation. He was clearly a good sort, but would only amount to something with the drive and support of his devoted sister.

We see Barbara support him financially and emotionally, shaping his career as an independent MP. She had the practical common sense and energy to mastermind his career, canvass and generally take care of him.

Their bond is evident in quiet holidays together in pre-war Germany, cheaply signposted by brown shirts walking around in the background, just like in Cabaret. There appeared to be the frisson of an exchanged glance between a brown shirt and shirtless Ronald by a sunlit stream, but I may be mistaken. Such bat squeaks of desire are necessarily difficult to pin down.

The elephant in the room during much of the play is an unspoken unease regarding relationship of brother and sister. The undercurrent leaves one to wonder whether any guilt stemming from repressed attraction played a part in creating the extreme romanticism of Barbara’s fiction.

The loss of her brother at Dunkirk prompted an excruciating agony of grief which was instantly converted into another headlong immersion in her romantic stories at her typewriter. For the rest of her life Barbara needed to have the reassurance of feeling his presence near her from the other side, and was disturbed when it was not evident.

Much of the play centres upon Barbara’s prime in the 1970’s. By this time she was a wealthy and successful novelist, living in a mansion assisted by her son and dealing autocratically with a large staff, producing twenty or so romances a year.

She was ahead of her time in truly exploiting the media to promote her writing and fearlessly diversified into areas such as singing romantic songs with full orchestra to promote the Cartland brand.

During this period Barbara invented herself. She breakfasted in bed issuing orders to staff like Madame de Pompadour. She had become a heavily made-up creature in yards of pink chiffon, clutching a Pekinese and became a virtual parody of herself, as when she forbade new staff to wear trousers.

We see her developing relationship with Lord Louis Mountbatten, played with a kind of laconic restraint by David Warner, that gave no incentive to warm to the character.

Their relationship is depicted as essentially flirtatious, lightweight and a little silly. She declares him to be England’s last hero and he is flattered by her attention. They converse initially in the back of his Bentley – in what looked like the fictitious episode of which we are warned at the beginning of the play. They lunch and dance romantically al fresco. Barbara introduces him to her health products and they collaborate upon a novel with a naval setting.

Although their liaisons are an innocent and pleasant way to pass the time, Barbara clearly thinks Mountbatten will propose marriage and he is seen trying to convince his family on the telephone that he has no such intention.

Her flirtation with Mountbatten leads the viewer to worry that she will inevitably be hurt by his rejection. Barbara’s delusion is never really shattered, since before the issue is tested, we have news of Mountbatten’s tragic death in a terrorist bombing. Yet again, Barbara negated her grief by announcing to her staff that there was no such thing as death and taking immediate refuge in her work.

The recurring leitmotif of Barbara’s life appeared to be seeking asylum in her invented pink romantic bubble, whenever events made the twentieth century too ghastly.

Anne Reid brilliantly captures the older Barbara at the height of her powers and set in her autocratic, eccentric and very “pink” ways. She demonstrates her carefree arrogance and confident enjoyment of the rewards of success. We see a dynamo producing prose like a machine and spouting outrageous opinions with the same remorseless energy and certainty. On a TV show in the 1970s, her outmoded views on careers, morality and marriage are hissed by an audience already affected by the growing Women’s Lib movement.

Anne Reid’s performance is full of light and shade: one moment a fierce battle axe, the next a fluttering coquette, now a bulldozing one-woman industry and next a frightened and vulnerable old lady. As always, when confronted by devastating loss, she finds consolation in her work.

The play is something of a collage rather than a straightforward narrative. The viewer has preconceptions of Barbara’s life, work and personality and this play makes some attempt to explain why she turned out as she did.

We see the consequences of loss of wealth and status and the damage done by an unhappy marriage and the death of her father, brother and romantic hero. We marvel at her sheer dynamism: the ability to apply herself to the tasks of making a living, writing and promoting the career of her brother. Throughout we see her devotion to Ronald and can only guess at whether it was this, combined with the experience of love in so many unsatisfactory forms, that led her to invent the pure and unsullied version idealised in countless romances.

A pre-eminent critic considered this play to be meagre, spiteful, malicious and fawning. I took a more sympathetic view: the depiction of the events of Barbara Cartland's life gave some explanation of the grande dame she became, her strengths and talents and the frailties and delusions from which she suffered.

One agreed with hardly any of the views she expressed or the imperious manner in which she treated her subordinates. The play did however explore her life in a way that gave some insight into her experiences and the reasons why she may have developed as she did. It allowed the viewer to have some sympathy and understand what were essentially her own coping mechanisms. It absorbed and entertained and was embellished by excellent performances from the brilliant Sinead Mathews and the evergreen Anne Reid. 

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