Friday, January 15, 2021

Portrait of a Lady ( 1968 ) - BBC

In 1968, BBC produced an excellent television adaptation of Henry James' critically acclaimed 1880 novel "The Portrait of a Lady". It aired as a two-part mini-series in January of that year. 

Suzanne Neve starred as Isabel Archer, the beautiful and spirited American woman who travels to England and becomes heir to a large fortune. This sudden windfall was meant to give her the opportunity to live her life as she pleases, to do as she likes without feeling an obligation to marry for "security".  Unfortunately, she wastes this opportunity when she decides to wed Gilbert Osmond ( James Maxwell ), an artist with extremely high-standards of living. She realizes her mistake too late and - having pride and a great deal of dignity - decides to simply bear it. 

If you are familiar with the work of Henry James then you will realize that The Portrait of a Lady plays James' usual tune of sorrow and disappointment. However, his extremely direct dialogue makes it a highly entertaining lament. 

This BBC production is not lavish in any way but the cast play their roles so well that even if they were standing on a bare stage their characters would come alive. Suzanne Neve is excellent as Isabel. Her character is so admirable that even her misguided decisions can be easily forgiven. Her cousin Ralph Touchett ( Richard Chamberlain ) certainly forgives her for letting him down. He put her on a pedestal the first moment he met her and delighted in watching her dare to dream and do all the things he could not due to his illness. Once she met Gilbert, those dreams vanished, and although Ralph warned her against marrying Gilbert, he still found it easy to love her for the eagle-like spirit she once displayed. 

Henry James often wrote stories that featured unusually spirited women ( for his time ). Ms. Archer is a woman who seems to have a glorious destiny ahead of her and yet no one is able to tell her what that destiny may be....and she certainly hasn't an inkling of what others expect of her, nor of what she expects of herself. When she meets Gilbert, she believes that becoming his benefactor may just be the greatest service she could render to the world but quickly discovers she was mistaken and finds herself in a disastrous marriage. 
Fortunately, this television adaptation focuses more on the events leading up to her marriage and does not spend much time dealing with the details of her marital sufferings. These events include Isabel meeting the handsome Ralph, being courted by the kindly Lord Warburton ( Edward Fox ), trying to dodge Casper Goodwood ( Ed Bishop ), and traveling the world with her Aunt Lydia ( Beatrix Lehmann ). 

Richard Chamberlain gives a stand-out performance as the sickly, but always happy, Ralph. Chamberlain had just completed his television series Dr. Kildare and this was quite a change from the kind of role that one would expect him to play. His performance garnered such critical acclaim that he remained in England and continued to do period films and other literary adaptations, eventually becoming known as the "King of the Miniseries". 

The Portrait of a Lady also features excellent performances by Rachel Gurney ( as Madame Merle ), Kathleen Byron ( as Countess Gemini ), Sarah Brackett, Alan Gifford and Sharon Gurney ( Rachel's real-life daughter playing her daughter on screen ). 

Like most of the BBC stage-to-screen teleplays, The Portrait of a Lady was split into episodes and aired over the course of several weeks. This play was aired in six parts ( 45 minutes each ). Despite the minimal set decor and simple direction, the episodes are never tiresome. In truth, there should have been one extra episode because some of the scenes skim over large spans of time too quickly. 


  1. I would like to watch this at some point, for Richard Chamberlain. One of these days!

    1. Chamberlain's a dreamboat in this series! You can't help but like his character. I would have loved to watch a series all about Ralph!

  2. I don't recall this series. I have had a nostalgic feeling of going back to the Brit TV of that era. Thanks for giving me this inspiration.

  3. I have never seen this adaptation, but love many British shows from this era. Plus, I never miss an opportunity to see Kathleen Byron. Additionally, Richard Chamberlain gave some fine post-Kildare performances in a variety of roles. Thanks for the recommendation!