Review: In Love with Barbara (BBC4)

I watched this last night, having recorded it the other week. It’s a BBC4 drama on the life of the late Dame Barbara Cartland, the prolific (and flamboyant) UK author who would write 723 books with estimated worldwide sales of one billion copies.

The drama flipped between her early life, growing up in the 30s, and her ‘mature’ life in the 1970s, at the height of her fame, when she forged an unlikely close relationship with Lord Louis Mountbatten (cousin to the Queen).

I didn’t know much about her, never having read her books. She wasn’t a prude but didn’t write about carnal relationships, instead her entire oeuvre remained highly formulaic – dashing young man sweeps beautiful young woman off her feet and they live happily ever after. I think people like that, which is probably why she sold so many books translated into 38 languages.

Her life wasn’t easy. She lost her beloved brother Ronald (whom she’d help get elected to parliament) as well as her other brother, in WWII. She also lost ‘Dickie’ (Lord Mountbatten) who was killed by the IRA in the late 70s. Her first husband was an alcoholic whom she divorced and her second husband, having been injured at Paschendale, was not the dashing romantic man she craved. Her daughter from her first marriage – Raine – would marry into the Spencer family, becoming Princess Diana’s stepmother.

An enjoyable drama that was well cast, especially the mature Dame Barbara played by Anne Reid (pictured).

You can read some funny quotes of hers here (she was a staunch champion of family values and a believer that the role of women was to tender to the whim of their menfolk, look pretty, etc).

The dramas on the BBC4 are consistently good. BBC4 is the ‘thinking person’s channel’ and I don’t care how pretentious that sounds. It is something of a bastion in the sea of dumbed-down bilge that proliferates across much of our TV channels – notably BBC1 and ITV.

Anyway, other notable – and very good – similar dramas that I’ve seen over the last year or so (either on BBC4 or occasionally on BBC2) include:

Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa

I think this was probably the best of all the ones I’ve seen. Desperately poignant, at turns tragic, but offering a real insight into Kenneth Williams as a person ‘off screen’. He could never really accept his sexuality which really did torture him. He was intensely close to his mother his whole life, too. Brilliantly acted by Michael Sheen who would go on to win the 2006 Royal Television Society best actor award. More info. You can rent it or buy it on DVD if you haven’t seen it and I’d definitely recommend it.

Fear of Fanny

About the celebrated British television chef (in the era before the likes of Nigella). Enjoyable. A difficult woman trapped in a bygone era to some extent. She was a dragon and a battleaxe, but had a vulnerable side too; it was very watchable. I spose she was a bit of a latter day Gordon Ramsay (though probably preferable, seeing as I can’t stand him as he represents all that I can’t abide in ‘celebrity’). More info.

Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story

This was on just the other week and was a fascinating insight into Mary Whitehouse – stalwart of family values, principally in connection with the ‘increasingly immoral’ stuff the BBC was showing on television.  Julie Walters gave an excellent performance and Whitehouse’s stubborn, determined, naive yet unstinting crusade was wonderfully recreated. More info. I quite liked part of The Independent’s write-up of it:

“Mary Whitehouse” has become, over the years, less a person than a figure of speech, a shorthand for suburban prudery. This programme made her flesh and blood again. Sometimes it went a bit too far – did we need to witness Whitehouse connubial congress? Or Mary sitting on the lav? No – but seeing the hurt in her eyes when she watched her husband mocked on the television programme Swizzlewick was a powerful moment. Source.

Tonight, in contrast to the Barbara Cartland drama last week (books written about spiritual love) – BBC4 is premiering Consuming Passions: 100 Years of Mills and Boon which from the trailers looks to be very good. I’ll be watching it.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the popular romance publishing phenomenon Mills and Boon, a colourful and camp drama which charts the witty and moving stories of three very different women affected by the brand’s success: co-founder Charles Boon’s wife Mary, daydreaming 1970s writer Janet and modern day literature lecturer Kirstie.

Whilst I have limited sympathy with the BBC over the recent Jonathan Ross / Russell Brand debacle, I still think – and have probably always thought – that their drama and the quality of their programming is absoultely top notch for the most part. Having lived abroad and seen just how dire the television is in some other English speaking countries can be (and in fairness, EU countries also) – we don’t do too badly.

9 thoughts on “Review: In Love with Barbara (BBC4)

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  1. Ah! I watched this too and enjoyed it every bit as much as you. Glad I caught it, as I had seen the trailer for it. Even gladder that we now have BBC4.

  2. Lula – glad you also enjoyed it. I’ve just finished watching the Consuming Passions drama and it was really good. Great that you have BBC4 now!!

  3. I didn´t see the Barbara Cartland one but I saw the others and thought they were excellent. I´m old enough to remember Fanny Cradock and she always struck me as a bit of a scary nightmare woman. I have never read any Barbara Cartland but think I can still venture the opinion that her books were terrible – I think this is one occasion where you CAN judge a book by its cover. And I´m writing this from Barcelona (just showing off now)! It´s as fab as you said!

  4. Daphne – you ought to watch it again on BBC iPlayer, also Consuming Passions which I thought was very good indeed.

    I haven’t read any Barbara Cartland but she must be doing SOMETHING right to have sold 1bn copies, no? I think people do love a feel good story and happy ending. Many women want to be the character they read about (that was kind of the plot line in Consuming Passions).

  5. I hope we get some of these on BBC America as they sound so fab.
    Wow – Julie Walters as Mary Whitehouse……I love her (Walters, not Woodhouse so much…)

  6. Betty – yeh, I’m also a big fan of Julie Walters. Educating Rita was one of her best in my opinion. You would have liked the Mary Whitehouse drama.

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