Britain’s Finest Actors, Five

by | Jul 11, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say of you liked it

A suitably venerable tome of the finest thespians this nation has given birth to.

What to say of you didn’t like it

If theatre luvviedom was manifested in flesh then it would sire these 10 flaccid, florid flowers of feyness. Where was Ross Kemp?

What was good about it?

• The first 20 minutes, where the careers of Daniel Day-Lewis and Charles Laughton were appraised, could have been the finest portion of British television since the Office Christmas special. Unfortunately, we missed it as we were too busy constructing a drainage system to channel our sweat out of the living room and on to the patio outside to supplement our stunning model of the Dead Sea.

• Theatre impresario Sir Peter Hall reminiscing about the way Peter Sellers would quickly become bored doing a play and so would alter the script from show to show, sometimes even forcing fellow cast members to repeat lines he thought inadequately enunciated. These antics transformed a successful play into one which bewildered the audience.

• The anecdote which revealed Sellers’ reliance on Tarot Cards and how he was once informed of the import of the initials “B.E.”, which he assumed referred to future wife Britt Ekland. His chauffeur, however, thought it more likely related to Blake Edwards, the

director of the Pink Panther series. On the other hand, Tarot Cards are probably a mystical ruse designed to swindle the weak and the gullible.

• The standard of contributor, the nominated actors’ absence notwithstanding, was of a pretty high standard. Film critics Mark Kermode, Derek Malcolm and Barry Norman provided perspicacious points about the actors’ biographies that may have ultimately inspired their dogged progress, while Patrick Stewart, Sheridan Morley, Sir Peter Hall and Simon Callow offered more personal, evocative touches.

• Kermode’s analysis of how Sir Anthony Hopkins transformed himself into Nixon, despite an unfathomable physical disparity, through mimicking the ex-US president’s twitching arms and aping his hunched gait was particularly perceptive.

• The clip from Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III in which he begins his “winter of discontent” monologue in front of a brainwashed audience in some contemporary fascist state, but concludes it while mumbling on his way to the bathroom.

• The biographies often revealed fascinating facts about the actors – Cary Grant being all but an orphan with a drunkard father and sectioned mother, and Alec Guinness, who was an illegitimate child, drinking quietly in his local pub in Hampshire in his twilight years.

• The newsreel of a phalanx of middle-aged women being valiantly restrained by a stressed line of policemen as they sought to worship Sir Laurence Olivier. Granted, it may have been a completely unrelated clip about the reintroduction of sewing machines into the UK after the end of World War Two, but it did impishly illustrate the idolatry afforded the “emperor” of the British stage.

• When Alec Guinness starred in Kind Hearts And Coronets, for one scene they needed to film the six roles Guinness was playing without moving the camera as this would have ruined the effect. To ensure that his camera wasn’t moved, the cameraman slept in the studio for two nights.

• Derek Malcolm recounting how, in the late 70s, he once bumped into Guinness, who was exhausted from doing two matinee performances at the theatre. The actor had just made a fortune from Star Wars and bemoaned that, “I don’t know why I bother. I could own the theatre.”

What was bad about it?

• The absence of any of the actors actually contributing to the show itself. Admittedly, six are dead (Grant, Guinness, Laughton, Olivier, John Gielgud and Sellers), but Ken Branagh, McKellen, Day-Lewis and Sir Anthony Hopkins all either refused or were not asked to take part. What makes it all the more curious is that many esteemed actors did contribute such as Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow.

* Bert Kwouk (Kato in the Pink Panther) offered an insight into Sellers, but didn’t recount any tales about his scene-stealing turns in the fight sequences between Kato and Clouseau.

• Mark Kermode used the English language equivalent of mustard gas when he uttered the phrase “pushing the envelope”.

• Fay Ripley getting all in a fluster when she explained that McKellen didn’t go to drama school, and yet still made it to the top. The reason for this was disclosed soon afterwards; McKellen was already such an accomplished actor, he didn’t need to attend drama school to get plum theatre roles.

• The lazy description of Cary Grant as the “epitome of Hollywood cool”. What is “Hollywood cool”, and should such a trivial, arbitrary appellation carry any weight as regards Grant’s acting talent?

• The way the Bristol of Cary Grant’s time was lamely induced by simply filming in the Cumberland Basin, taking some long shots of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and then tingeing them in sepia and blurs. We’re very familiar with those very same visions –

only we weren’t sober at the time.

• Fay Ripley dispelled the tension over the winner when she mentioned “Chianti”, 10 minutes before Hopkins’ triumph was unveiled.

• The assumption that because all of the top 10 were “world superstars”, this affirmed just how very good they are. This is wrong, as much of their global fame is rooted in the fact they speak the same language as the hive of most cinematic excellence (and drivel) – America.

Britain’s Finest Actresses, Five

• Peggy Ashcroft. Dubbed “the Kylie Minogue of the 1920s” by her son-in-law (a somewhat ambiguous compliment for anyone who has seen The Delinquents), Ashcroft was spunky, fun as well as extremely talented. She also supposedly hid a transistor radio in her helmet to listen to a cricket match while on stage.

• Deborah Kerr and the furore over her sexual embrace with Burt Lancaster in From Here To Eternity. After initial concerns that the film had ‘shattered her ladylike image’, the scene now looks wonderfully chaste. The only real disturbing element is Lancaster’s terrible Frankie Goes To Hollywood swimming trunks.

• No James King or any of his dull film criticism.

• Good old Lizzie Taylor, the classic Hollywood actress. Quite rightly she was praised for having the ability to stun an audience on stage or screen before words even came out of her mouth. Her No.7 ranking however was a little disappointing.

• The majestic Maggie Smith. Clearly loved by those in the industry and the public, her journey from ambitious child to respected thespian was as exciting and engaging as her performances. We loved the story that Laurence Olivier’s Othello allegedly struck Smith’s Desdemona a little too hard after reviews focused on her star quality – her response was to say it was the first time she’d seen “stars at the National Theatre”.

Lowlights of Britain’s Finest Actresses, Five, Monday

• Simon Callow’s grave, solemn narration throughout. It was as if he had been told Will Mellor had beaten him to the title of Britain’s Finest Actor before filming.

• Ironically for a programme celebrating the credible and laudable in film, it insisted on showing hammy reconstructions of the actresses’ childhoods and lives.

• Although some of the stories were interesting, there was a noticeable lack of dishing the dirt. It would have been satisfying knowing more about their stormy relationships and quirky faults rather than how Vanessa Redgrave got on at ballet for example.

• The rankings in the Top 10 were understandable but there were some substantial absences. Why no Diana Rigg, Eileen Atkins or Celia Imrie?

• James Sherwood. We choked on our cocoa when the title Film Critic appeared underneath his name. Wearing the constant expression of someone finding skid marks on a bathroom towel, he laughably declared that Butterfield 8 was “one of the greatest movies of all time”.

• The length. At over two hours long, the programme began to outstay its welcome and descend into repetitive adulation for its subjects.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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