Acorn Media, 1996. 78 minutes. Full cast at IMDB.
It is 1922 in the Spanish Pyrenees. Vanity Fair is determined to marry off her stepdaughter, Jenny, to the oily Baron Gaston in order to inherit her late husband's fortune. His will stipulated that the inheritance was to pass to the stepmother should Jenny marry before her thirtieth birthday. English gentleman Richard Chandos is fly fishing in the area, discovers the plot, and works to rescue Jenny and put an end to Vanity Fair.
This production has all the elements for a perfect melodrama: an inheritance hinging on a restrictive provision in a will, a gloomy castle, organ music, evil criminal mastermind, brutish henchmen, daring escapes, thrilling chases, fallen clergyman, innocent woman in distress, dramatic reactions, a stalwart servant of the Crown, and an English gentleman who steps up when duty calls.
I didn't know what to expect when I picked up this DVD but several items caught my eye. The case for She Fell Among Thieves says that it is "The BBC drama that launched Mystery! on PBS." It also stars one of my favorite actors, Malcolm McDowell, and was adapted for television by Tom Sharpe, a writer of satire I enjoy. that was enough to get me to purchase it.
This is a wonderfully melodramatic production. Eileen Atkins gives an over-the-top performance as the villainous Vanity Fair. She is an international criminal so frightening that men would rather stand before a firing squad than betray her. With her bone white complexion, red hair, archaic dress, and exaggerated mannerisms, she looks like a cross between Queen Elizabeth I and Cruella De Vil. She also has a talent for curling her red lips disdainfully that I admired.
Malcolm McDowell is excellent as Richard Chantos, the English gentleman. He plays the role with the right amount of earnestness, a man willing to step up, without question, when duty calls.
Michael Jayston is Mansel, the British agent who has been tracking Vanity Fair and recruits Chantos. I thought he looked familiar and suspect I saw him as Valeyard on Doctor Who.
Dunsford Yates wrote eight Chantos thrillers in which Mansel was also a recurring character. Wikipedia has this interesting statement about the Chantos novels,
It is the Chandos novels which are especially referred to by Alan Bennett when he mentions Dornford Yates in Forty Years On (1972): "Sapper, Buchan, Dornford Yates, practitioners in that school of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through twentieth-century literature".
I love that phrase, "Snobbery with Violence."
I give this production high marks. It is clever, fun, and doesn't take itself seriously. The dialog and acting were well suited for the kind of story presented. As for the cast, well, check their filmographies at IMDB. The combined experience of these actors is staggering.
Has anyone read the Dunsford Yates' Chantos novels? I have a feeling that Sharpe was having a bit of fun with the florid style of books written at that time.