Did we like it?
A scrupulous, often excruciating, but utterly captivating depiction of one man’s wanton, selfish destruction of a young woman’s career and self-esteem.
What was good about it?
• The narrative was far more lucid and focused than the kindred Joe’s Palace, as Greville White (David Walliams) eroded the influence and literary potency of bright new writer Mary Gilbert because she embodied the erosion of his conservative world of an unchallenged, indulgent elite.
• Ruth Wilson’s remarkable turn as the Icarus-esque Mary who flew too close to the unforgiving glare of the masculine establishment and who had her wings singed to a crisp by the brutality of Greville’s pitiable vengeance after she refused his invitation to become a meek, docile woman (much like the Stepford Wives-alike Liza who was metamorphosed into a female version of him).
• With Maggie Smith’s wearied, lamenting narration layered on top of most of the action from the 50s and 60s, Wilson had to convey by turns the vivacity, curiosity, terror and ultimately despair that befell Mary through her faltering dialogue and, more keenly, her facial expressions to match the words of her later self. This she managed excellently, so much so that it was sometimes possible to switch off the imperious Smith and just watch the story unfold through Wilson’s turbulent visage such as when she hurries back from the wine cellar her slim shoulders pinned back lest they get snagged on the furniture and impede her flight from Greville’s manipulation.
• Or at the party in the 60s where Mary tries to catch Greville’s eye, during which Wilson captures perfectly the silent, seething frustration and pleading towards someone with whom you want to make eye contact refuses to do so even though they are aware of your presence which makes you all the more obsessed with having them notice you indicating the hold they have over you, as Greville had over Mary.
• As in Joe’s Palace, young housesitter Joe acts as the catalyst for the protagonist to confront and defeat their lifelong fears. Initially, it is only through the blunt prompting of Joe that Mary is convinced to visit those same rooms that almost half-a-century earlier had been the sites where she had begun the spiral into obsolescence that has continued to blight her since.
• Much like Joe, David Walliams’ performance as the sinister Greville is hard to pin down, largely because he represents an idea, a prejudice rife in society of the elite repressing the ambitions of people from lower classes. But in those scenes which called upon him to appear threatening and merciless and to imply woe for Mary should she not comply with his ostensibly benign requests – which in reality were orders as sure had they been barked from a sergeant major’s mouth to raw recruits, but were spoken in smooth, soothing tones to adhere to the illusory code of refinement endemic in the upper circles of society – he was quite chilling.
• While in parts Greville’s decapitation of Mary’s career lacked cogency, elsewhere it was spellbinding. For example, in the way he undermines her journalism when he firstly charms her with “froth” and gossip about the luminaries of the times, but turns this on his head by following this up with a succession of horrific tales that putrefies the importance and credibility of the “froth” and in so doing, her writing.
• This may not have been Poliakoff’s intention but as Greville lauded the quality of the wine in 1929, commenting on how “it was a great year”, and Mary rejoined that it was quite the opposite as it had been the year of the stock market crash “and people throwing themselves out of buildings”, it struck us that eras in history are often solely defined by a single event that can either cast the year as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and how frequently this is determined by what happens in the wider world, with things that happen to all but the most ‘important’ of individuals considered irrelevant.
What was bad about it?
• The way in which Mary was assumed to have a very, very modern day perspective of 50s society. Estranged at a party at the house in the 60s, she bemoans the fact that she feels uncomfortable in all the iridescent fashions and jaunty hullabaloo of the era, yet her opinions of the world are very much based in the 21st century. This especially jarred when Greville tried to shock her that some cabinet minister thought that the Jews “f**king deserved” what happened to them at the hands of the Nazis.
• While Mary would of course have been appalled by the Holocaust, it seems a little inconceivable that she would be shocked that such beliefs were being expressed among the elite as this was only two decades after Mosley; and his idolaters would have only melted from public view rather than being extinguished from society itself.
• And this device for Greville to cow Mary into submission was repeated when her later disclosed that he had been at a banquet, where he was a youngish man amongst elderly ministers and lords, where his guests had vilified African nations’ efforts to secure independence using such language as “niggers”. While such terms are rare now (at least in public) we can’t imagine that Mary had been so sheltered that she wasn’t often exposed to such racism, particularly given that she attended such parties where this bigotry would have flowed freely.