by Allan Fish
(UK 1974 350m) DVD1/2
No mere portrait
p Andrew Brown d Simon Cellan Jones w Julian Mitchell m Tom McCall, André Previn art Frederick Pusey, Mike Hall
Lee Remick (Jennie Jerome), Ronald Pickup (Randolph Churchill), Christopher Cazenove (George Cornwallis-West), Siân Phillips (Mrs Patrick Campbell), Warren Clarke (Winston Churchill), Dan O’Herlihy (Leonard Jerome), Thorley Walters (Prince of Wales), Zoe Wanamaker (Pearl Gragie), Rachel Kempson (Duchess of Marlborough), Cyril Luckham (Duke of Marlborough), Jeremy Brett (Count Kinsky), Barbara Parkins (Leonie Jerome), Patrick Troughton (Disraeli), Joanna David, Michael Gough, John Westbrook, Charles Kay,
At the time of its release, Jennie seemed to herald a new era in television drama; or at least do so for the ITV network. It was a massive success, winning its star both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for her performance, and it lead to similar dramas Edward the Seventh and Lillie that followed on ITV over the forthcoming years. Those other two have their own claims to classic status, especially Edward, with its towering portrayals from Timothy West, Robert Hardy and Annette Crosbie as Eddie, Albert and Victoria respectively. The sneaking suspicion, however, was that the first of the trio was the best, but for too long it was impossible to judge. Repeats were extremely limited – non-existent on terrestrial TV since the advent of video, while poor Network tried several times to overcome the copyright problems surrounding it to release it on DVD before they finally succeeded. If seven hours seems a long time to invest in the life of one person – for those unaware, the American girl who married Lord Randolph Churchill, and was Winston’s mother – I can safely say it took many years to even get chance to see it, and I can quite categorically say that it was well worth the wait.
Does this mean to say that Jennie is perfect? No, not really, but one has to bear in mind the time in which it was made; Jennie has its fair share of cheap sets and recreations. However, in other ways it looks forward to Brideshead Revisited and the reinvention of TV drama serials in the eighties by Granada, in its use of location shooting. Special dispensation was given by the Duke of Marlborough for filming at the ancestral seat of the Churchill family, BlenheimPalace, while other real locations were also used.
The series itself was released to coincide with the centenary of Churchill’s birth and made with the full co-operation of the Churchill family, with writer Julian Mitchell granted access to Jennie’s diaries, and it’s to their and his credit that it isn’t a hagiography. Jennie is portrayed as a complex woman, as indeed she must have been; in one respect lovely, devoted and forthright, while in another capricious, flirtatious, temperamental and aware of her own sexual allure, which leads to several romantic affairs. And there is a lot of romance in the piece, not merely in terms of the characters, but in terms of the visual style, and even in terms of André Previn’s waltz-like main theme, written as if to keep up with Jennie’s life in what was, for those times, the fast lane. Yes, nowadays one might criticise that it is a little coy with aspects of its handling, but it’s always a tasteful production which occasionally calls a spade a spade. It also blows away Richard Attenborough’s film Young Winston – a well-acted but dull film – in every respect.
Final thoughts, however, must go to the cast, where one must make special mention of Dan O’Herlihy as Jennie’s American father and an interesting take on Mrs Patrick Campbell from Sian Phillips – then on the verge of her own TV immortality in How Green Was My Valley and I, Claudius. Better still, there’s the unjustly overlooked Ronald Pickup as Randolph (“no true Englishman dances really well, you know, it isn’t done”), who has never been, and could not have been, better. Rising above all, though, is Remick – always perfectly at home in the English scene – who gives arguably her greatest ever performance; intoxicating, insufferable and altogether unforgettable.