Some notes on the 2000 Scarlet Pimpernel series

Some notes on the 2000 TV series ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’

I have in my possession a box set of this production, the material contained in four DVD discs. The series was adapted from the books by the Baroness Orczy by Richard Carpenter, and on the whole he has not done a bad job. Where the series fails, collapses in fact, is in the casting, with one exception – Ronan Vibert.  Richard E. Grant plays Percy Blakeney, a difficult task because Blakeney must be an effeminate fop, pandering to the Prince of Wales (future George IV) in some scenes – and a highly dangerous, athletic, intelligent kind of 18th century ‘Bourne’ in others, rescuing aristos from the clutches of the French revolutionaries. Leslie Howard managed this tolerably well in a film made in the Thirties. David Niven failed completely in 1950. Grant’s problem is simply one of class. Good actor that he is, he hasn’t the right sound, looks or disdain to play an aristocrat. There are plenty of other actors who possess these essential traits – Sam West and Toby Stephens come to mind.

Poor Elizabeth McGovern, an American, cannot begin to be Marguerite Blakeney, one is not convinced by her for a second. Ronan Vibert is splendid as Robespierre, chilling, hypnotic – the best acting in the entire series; Wikipedia by the way makes one of its wonderful mistakes by telling us Vibert played someone he did not play in the Wodehouse ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ series with Fry and Laurie. The name of the character Vibert plays (in the Jeeves) is AugustusGussie’ FinkNottle by the way, not Wikipedia’s hopeless invention.

Martin Shaw is one of England’s best actors but here is hopelessly cast as ‘Chauvelin’. Shaw is too nice, too kind, too sympathetic. The Baroness Orczy’s Chauvelin should have been played by someone like Alan Rickman, or the earlier Wolf Morris or Patrick Troughton. One must look positively devilish to play Chauvelin, and Martin looks like the short of chap you play a round of golf with. Chauvelin would put a tee under his ‘lost’ ball in the deep rough and then play it out with a sandblaster, hitting a greenkeeper on the head.

The entire series was shot in the Czech Republic and very nice too, as there are few places in modern France where the essentially French scenes could be filmed. But the Paris guillotine was established in what is now the Place de la Concorde, not the Palais de Justice.

Really good acting, as you would expect, comes from the expert John McEnery (whatever became of his younger brother Peter?) playing Percy’s older friend in the second series of six episodes. But where is Andrew ffoulkes? And why did the series-makers kill off another young gentleman of the League so early on in the first series? Here there are mysteries.

Most people's idea of The Scarlet Pimpernel, from the comics / comicwire.com

Most people’s idea of The Scarlet Pimpernel, from the comics / comicwire.com

Last quibble: Why the dreadful theme music? It could have been faux eighteenth century, but instead there is some imitation Hollywood brass-banding over the titles, totally inappropriate. Oh dear, all that money, all of that travelling between Birmingham and the Czech Republic, all those fine actors (even if they were not quite right for the part), the skilful directors, and then a lousy score identifiably recorded in Prague!

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