One of the best things about TV in recent years has been the influx of quirky, enjoyable, intelligent biographical dramas from BBC4. This was another wonderful example – and it wasn’t even one of the best.
What was good about it?
• Romantic novelist Barbara Cartland was a frightful snob with no proper literary ability, yet Sinead Matthews as the younger version and Anne Reid as the powdered elderly version portrayed her sympathetically, as a real person with real problems and never veered into caricature.
• Rather than a resumé of Cartland’s whole life, the drama focused on the 1930s when she was trying to earn a crust by bashing out artices on how women should act, interspersed with the 1970s when she teamed up with Lord Louie Mountbattan (a role played with rascally relish by David Warner) to write a novel about a sea captain – the dashing Conrad Hall – to raise money for charity.
• The Queen of Romance’s refusal to let facts get in the way of her storiesas she churned out 723 novels at 6,000 words a day. So what if the English navy happened to be fighting the French off Antigua! That’s where she fancied setting the story so that’s where it was set.
• Cartland’s never say die, reality resistant attitude in which she forced herself to suppress her emotions and abandon any thought of self pity by reciting more and more romantic nonsense to her efficient amanuensis Helen. Within seconds of hearing of the Dunkirk death of her beloved brother Ronnie or Lord Louie, just as she believed he was about to propose, she was reclining on her sofa, spouting more of her “heaving breast” hokum.
• An excellent soundtrack reflecting the escapist frivolity of Cartland’s life, juxtaposed with the real world anthems of the time such as Anarchy in the UK.
• Two of our favourite young actors were in it – Rebekah Staton as Helen and Tom Burke as Ronnie – and both gave excellent performances.
What was bad about it?
• Despite setting itself narrow prameters, Jacquetta May’s drama was rushed at times, dropping momentarily into episodes of Cartland’s life when we would have happily stayed for much longer.