Friday, March 11, 2022

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ( 1978 )

In the winter of 1978, Scottish Television, a branch of ITV, released The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a seven-part miniseries based on Muriel Spark's 1961 novella of the same name. The story centers on the life of Miss Jean Brodie ( Geraldine McEwan ), a Scottish schoolteacher, focusing primarily on her "prime" years at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh in the 1930s. 

Miss Brodie is a highly educated, enthusiastic, and well-meaning teacher but her idea of what kind of curriculum should be taught to her pupils clashes with headmistress Miss Campbell's more conservative guidelines of education. 

Miss Brodie believes that "goodness, truth, and beauty" should reign supreme in life and regards men such as Mussolini as men of heroism who "fight for what they believe". She hangs fascist posters on her classroom walls alongside prints of religious art by Giotto and Rossetti, both of which scandalize the provincial Miss Gaunt ( Georgine Anderson ), one of Brodie's most disapproving colleagues. 

Even though some of the staff find her viewpoints dangerous, she has a loyal group of worshippers among her students who become known as the "Brodie set". These girls are the creme de la creme of her class whom Brodie takes under her wing. They spend time outside of the school with her and often have tea at her apartment on weekends. 

Another one of Miss Brodie's worshippers is Teddy Lloyd ( John Castle ), the married art instructor at the school. Mr. Lloyd wants to paint one masterpiece in his life and selects Jean to be his inspiration...and his mistress. This clashes with her goodness-and-truth precepts so she never visits Mr. Lloyd's studio unchaperoned by her girls, nevertheless, she finds his romantic advancements exhilarating. 

Teaching is Miss Brodie's passion, her very life, and so she remains single to devote all her attention to her gairls and their molding into modern Scottish women. It cuts her to the core when she discovers that one of her girls turned against her and approached the headmistress to get her expelled from school. 

"Life is full of surprises and one of the greatest is the sudden blossoming of a woman's prime. One's prime is the moment one is born for and you shall have the fruit of mine."

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first brought to the screen in 1968 with Maggie Smith giving an Academy Award-winning performance as the dedicated teacher. No film or television adaptation can improve on that masterpiece of entertainment, but this ITV production still has its merits. 

Geraldine McEwan gives a fine performance of Miss Brodie, even though she lacks Maggie Smith's beauty and regal presence. McEwan endows the role with her own charm and mannerisms and the relationship her character has with her students is much more sympathetic and compassionate. She really tries to live up to her ideals and be a virtuous role model to her girls, not just an image to be worshipped. 

The cast of girls playing Brodie's set was well-chosen, too. Jean McKinley plays the awkward Mary MacGregor, Amanda Kirby ( The Clifton House Mystery ) is pretty Jenny, Tracey Childs is Rose, and Lynsey Baxter ( Chancer ), Sandy. This was an interesting choice because Baxter's portrayal of Sandy is not at all like Pamela Franklin's portrayal of her in the film version. Franklin's Sandy was a mature and self-assured young woman whereas Baxter's Sandy is more childish and - seemingly - impressionable.

Also in the cast is Vivienne Ross as headmistress Miss Campbell, who is much more of an ally to Miss Brodie than Miss MacKay ever was. 

Jay Presson Allen penned a marvelous script for this series, which was based on her own play. Muriel Spark's original story was a scant 170 pages. Allen took this and turned it into a riveting 116-minute script for the 1968 film and, ten years later, managed to expand it into a 350-minute miniseries. Allen's new dialogue is as cleverly written as the original script and, in the first episode, she gives the audience a fascinating peek at Miss Brodie's life prior to her arrival at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. We see her wrestle with the frustrations of a narrow-minded English school system and also get to witness her turn down a marriage proposal from George Jenkins ( Robert Urquhart ) who, although not the Lord Lyon King of Arms, was a prominent businessman who loved Jean deeply.  

Like most British miniseries of the era, ITV's production was filmed in video with "halos" sometimes appearing around the actors' bodies. Fortunately, the series is not as stagebound as other filmed plays of the 1970s and there is some nice outdoor location filming around Edinburgh. The series was released both in England and in the United States when it first aired and today it can be seen in its entirety on DVD or streamed via Acorn TV. 


  1. Great post! This sounds interesting -- I'd love to see it. I may have to invest in Acorn . . .

  2. To my mind, this is superior to the film version. It’s now also available to watch on YouTube.