Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Lucan TV Reviews ."I suppose it's not 100% impossible that Lord Lucan is watching too"

Lucan – TV review
Lord Lucan's vile, hate-filled world of decadence and privilege is brilliantly captured in Jeff Pope's adaptation of John Pearson's book The Gamblers
Sam Wollaston

It's a pity that a man called John Burke resigned from the infamous Mayfair gambling haunt The Clermont Club in 1965. Why a pity? Because in Lucan (ITV), a much older Burke is played by Michael Gambon.

Jeff Pope's excellent drama is based on John Pearson's book The Gamblers, and it cleverly includes Pearson as a character, linking the past with (almost) the present. So we see Pearson (played by Paul Freeman) interviewing some old aristos of the Clermont set, trying to shed new light on the mystery that has intrigued Britain for decades. But because John Burke was only at the Clermont for the first couple of years (he fell out with founder John Aspinall), and wasn't around to witness Lord Lucan's downfall and disappearance, he doesn't have an awful lot to tell Pearson. Or won't tell him – they're a secretive bunch, these toffs, especially when it comes to Lucan and facing up to their own despicable pasts. Anyway, what this all means is that Gambon – such a spellbinding, screen-owning presence – is only around for the first 10 minutes or so. That's the pity.

Not that there aren't other extraordinary performances. Rory Kinnear's Lucan for one – quiet, proper, angry, not overburdened with brains or imagination, blinded by his gambling addiction and his sense of entitlement. I don't think there is any footage of the real Lucan; as far as I'm concerned, Kinnear now is him. While Christopher Eccleston has become Aspinall, or Aspers – charismatic and charming while ruthlessly relieving his so-called friends of their inheritances, with a monkey on his shoulder or a tiger cub at his feet, and some questionable views about "the natural order of things". Then there's Catherine McCormack's Lady Veronica Lucan – anxious, vulnerable, bullied, but somehow able to cling on to dignity in court. And Jane Lapotaire as another of Pearson's interviewees, Susie Maxwell-Scott, is a ghastly old trout clinging to a world that no longer exists, and one of the least sisterly women you're ever likely to come across. All are brilliant.

But is there really anything left to be said about the Lucan affair? Well, my thorough and scientific survey with approximately four (OK, exactly three) people – Guardian employees, no less, though too young to have been alive in 1965 and, if they were around in 1974, not yet on top of current affairs, even sensational scandals – reveals that the under 50s know very little about it. He went missing, they do know that. But was he a spy? Or did he kill someone? His wife? Only one of my colleagues thinks a nanny might have been involved. No one knows the name Sandra Rivett. So perhaps it's not overfamiliar.

And, just as Pearson's book wasn't, this isn't only about the Lucan affair either. Pearson started off writing a book about the Clermont and the people who went there; it just turned into one about Lucan because, he says here, "books have a strange way of exerting their own existence". Pope's adaptation, too, is just as much about that time and those people in that place, as about the Clermont. Actually, it's about two rotten institutions – a vile club full of decadence and privilege, and an even viler marriage – the Lucans' – full of hatred and abuse. The two combined to create an almost unimaginable world in which psychological torture was acceptable and planning on doing away with an inconvenient wife was just another gamble.

The first part ends on that night, 7 November 1974, with the nanny, Sandra Rivett, lying bludgeoned to death in the the basement of the Lucan family home. Part two, which goes out next Wednesday and already beckons with a menacing finger, will take it from there – Lucan disappearing and his chums closing ranks, not saying very much at all. Until – and this is the clever thing about making Pearson a character – many years later when Susie Maxwell-Scott, the last person to see Lucan alive, tells Pearson something …

It's funny to think that some of these people might be watching. Not Maxwell-Scott, who died soon after talking to Pearson. But Veronica, Countess of Lucan, is still very much around, only 75 and living not far from where it all happened. The kids, too, of course, over whom the Lucans were fighting. Plus some of the Clermont set, but not Aspinall, or Jimmy Goldsmith. Maybe they'll be nodding, or shaking their heads – that happened, that didn't. I suppose it's not 100% impossible that Lord Lucan is watching too
Pier group: Rory Kinnear and Catherine McCormack in the ITV crime drama 'Lucan'

 Lucan, ITV: Review - Brilliantly acted, cleverly scripted and beautifully shot

It is almost 40 years since John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared following the murder of his children's nanny Sandra Rivett. Lucan was convicted of the crime in absentia and, while his body has never been discovered, his estranged wife Veronica believes he killed himself sometime in the early hours after Rivett's death.

Not everyone is convinced. For much of my childhood it seemed as though newspapers filled a slow news day with a sighting of Lucan apparently propping up a bar in a far-flung outpost of the former Empire and the most common conspiracy theory has the Clermont Set – John Aspinall, Jimmy Goldmith, Dominic Elwes et al – closing ranks to protect the peer, helping him to elude the police at a crucial time.

Lucan, ITV's glossy reconstruction of the events leading up to and after Rivett's murder, began with the declaration that "much of this story is based on fact, though we have also included an element of speculation" before plunging us straight into the familiar tale of upper-class cads, gambling addiction and domestic despair.

Scripted by Jeff Pope, who has good form in tricky real-life adaptations having produced the award-winning Fred West drama, Appropriate Adult, Lucan drew on John Pearson's The Gamblers to present a hermetically sealed world in which women knew their place and the greatest sin was to be a bore.

In the lead role, Rory Kinnear perfectly caught Lucan's ponderous charm, making you see why women such as Susie Maxwell Scott might have covered up for him simply by dint of his birth, while there were strong performances from Jane Lapotaire as the older Susie, Leanne Best as Rivett and, in particular, Catherine McCormack as poor beleaguered Veronica, trapped in marriage to a husband who appeared to delight in tormenting her and even attempted to have her committed.

The show's real villain, however, was the machiavellian Aspinall, played by Christopher Eccleston with serpentine grace (and the odd accent issue). This Aspinall was a consummate game player and puppet master, an outsider who pulled off the neat trick of seeming like the ultimate insider and who was shown repeatedly reminding Lucan about survival of the fittest, the natural order of things and the need to "fight dirty and let there be no shame".

"Aspers" might have been an upper-crust Iago but "Lucky" Lucan was no Othello brought low by jealousy and, while Pope's script was adept at showing you how the peer got to the desperate place where murdering his wife seemed a logical way of gaining custody of his children, the best thing about Lucan was the way in which it gave Veronica a voice, making this as much a story about the quiet desperation faced by many married women, both then and now, as the same old sensational tale.

Yet even Pope's astute script couldn't quite shake off a growing sense of queasiness that here was murder regurgitated as entertainment. We talk about the Lord Lucan affair yet the real story is the brutal death of Sandra Rivett and there was something wrong about the way she was reduced to a bit part in her own tale.

The killing itself was shot in near- darkness and tastefully handled but it was hard to watch without feeling like a voyeur in someone else's tragedy. A feeling that seems only likely to increase next week when the focus switches to the aftermath of the murder and the attempts or otherwise of the Clermont Club to save one of their own. Lucan was a brilliantly acted, cleverly scripted and beautifully shot drama. I'm not sure it should have ever been made.

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