Ro­mance at twi­light time

Daily Express - - TELEVISION­EXPRESS - Edited by CHAR­LOTTE CIVIL Matt Baylis on last night’s TV

N sev­eral oc­ca­sions this week, we’ve had a chance to catch Jac­quetta May’s sym­pa­thetic trib­ute to the grande-dame of ro­man­tic nov­el­ists, Bar­bara Cart­land – IN LOVE WITH BAR­BARA (BBC4).

Over re­cent months, BBC4 has in­vited us to sym­pa­thise with a host of fe­male icons of yes­ter­year – Mary Whitehouse, Fanny Cradock and Mar­garet Thatcher – and though the tone of th­ese playlets has been tongue-in-cheek, the writ­ers have al­ways done their job with heart as well.

In the minds of many view­ers, Cart­land is prac­ti­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able from Dame Edna Ever­age – a car­toon fig­ure in pink chif­fon, flut­ter­ing eye­lids like

Ofly-traps as she dic­tates ro­man­tic sto­ries to a sec­re­tary seated be­hind a chaise longue. But she was a real per­son. And as this por­trait shows, the fic­tional world of smoul­der­ing he­roes and swoon­ing girls that Cart­land painted might have been a sub­sti­tute for a love life she could never have her­self.

De­nied or dis­il­lu­sioned by the men of her gen­er­a­tion who’d ei­ther been killed or maimed in the First World War, the young Cart­land (Sinead Matthews) poured her af­fec­tions on to her brother Ron­ald (Tom Burke). He be­came her con­fi­dante through­out her first, un­happy mar­riage, pop­ping round to edit her books as hubby sloped off to get drunk at his club.

Some of th­ese scenes were less pow­er­ful than the writer might have in­tended them to be. Matthews’ at­tempt to mimic the Cart­land voice re­sulted in a scratchy lisp rem­i­nis­cent of Bon­nie Lang­ford’s Vi­o­let El­iz­a­beth Bott, the an­noy­ing friend of Just William. The line “I just can’t get him to do what I want, Won­ald” might have started out as the cry of an unloved heart, but it came out like an oft-quoted line from an old Carry On film.

Things im­proved as the story un­folded. Like many an am­bi­tious woman, Cart­land learned to be the power be­hind the throne, jug­gling early nov­els with mas­ter­mind­ing Ron­ald’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, which never reached the dizzy­ing heights she had pre­dicted. How­ever, she was dev­as­tated by Ron­ald’s death in the Sec­ond World War, which sent her to the fringes of New Age mys­ti­cism.

She got a chance to re­play her love, much more sat­is­fy­ingly, in the twi­light of her years, with Lord Mount­bat­ten. The scenes be­tween th­ese two el­derly lovers – played bril­liantly by Anne Reid and David Warner – man­aged to be sweet without be­ing sickly, partly be­cause we saw them both as real peo­ple, partly be­cause of the jokes.

There was a brief spat when the pair col­lab­o­rated on a novel – a ro­mance, nat­u­rally – set on board a ship of the line in 1815. Af­ter Mount­bat­ten pointed out that a tor­rid love af­fair in the West Indies would have been ham­pered by the Bat­tle of Water­loo closer to home, Cart­land lost pa­tience. “Life is dif­fi­cult for my ladies,” she lec­tured him, re­fer­ring to the read­ers. “They have fat husbands and chil­dren with squints. They don’t need to know how many frigates Napoleon had.”

In her view, love should tri­umph over ev­ery­thing. That, of course, was the ex­tra in­gre­di­ent in the twi­light love scenes. We knew love couldn’t tri­umph for long, be­cause we knew Mount­bat­ten’s un­for­tu­nate fate. We found our­selves wish­ing that a fairy god­mother in pink chif­fon would sprin­kle magic on the plot and send the lovers into the sun­set. But this was a tale about life, and life isn’t like that. That, of course, is why Cart­land’s books did so well.

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