Why should PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre run all the prestigious English productions? That’s what one CBS executive must have declared before making a deal to add a little culture to the line up in 1982. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a superstar project for the elite viewers. It was based on classic works of literature: The Scarlet Pimpernel and Eldorado. Anthony Andrews was red hot after his turn as the dandy Sebastian Flyte on the miniseries Brideshead Revisited. He was ready to star as the iconic hero of the really rich. To make it even more appealing to network viewers, Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die) was cast as his love interest. The man assigned to track down the Scarlet Pimpernel was an actor noted mainly for his Shakespearean stage work. Although decades later, Sir Ian McKellen would be a cinema superstar his work in X-Men and The Lord of the Rings. There’s also another cast member who would go on to future fame and glory, but as a screenwriter. Oscar winning writer Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey plays The Prince Regent. The Scarlet Pimpernel had the pedigree of a champion TV special.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was a bit of a Batman figure in the time after the French Revolution. Who was this mysterious character who would smuggle the aristocrats out of prisons and cheat the guillotine a neck to slice? He upset the French government who wanted to eliminate the snobs that had kept them down over the years. Who could this Scarlet Pimpernel be since he always wore a disguise during rescue missions? He couldn’t possibly be Englishman Sir Percy Blakeney (Andrews). Sir Percy’s a super fop who might cry if he had to do any real work. He was not meant for super hero work. But it turns out he is. He is good at maintain his dual identities. Even his girlfriend Marguerite St. Just (Seymour) has no clue that the man who speaks like he’s auditioning for a Bravo series is the wanted Pimpernel. The one person he doesn’t want to guess his identity is Chauvelin (McKellen). He’s stick of losing his royal charges. He will go to any extreme to out the Pimpernel. The action heats up when the Pimpernel accepts the mission to rescue the Dauphin. That would cause Chauvelin to have an appointment with the blade.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classy affair. There’s plenty of sword fighting. Andrews is extremely fancy in his dialogue which has the cadence of a Oxford graduate impersonating Mark E. Smith of the Fall. The rest of the cast looks stunning in their period dress. Director Clive Donner was able to restore his artistic soul with this productions. Before supervising the perfect way to lop off an rich man’s head, Donner had directed The Nude Bomb (the poorly received Get Smart movie), Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and Old Drac. Donner proves he’s better than his cinematic material with this TV special. CBS didn’t put their head in a basket when they dared to challenge Masterpiece Theatre.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The movie uses film instead of the film/video combo favored in English productions at this time. The image seems a bit soft as if they used 16mm. but it doesn’t blur out the fluffy wardrobe of the upper class and the muck of the poor. The audio is fine with levels bouncing a bit between scenes. There’s English subtitles in case you can’t handle Andrews’ Sir Percy accent.
No bonus features.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a grand version of the classic novel. The trio of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen bring to the dashing nature of this tale of post-French Revolution intrigue. You’ll actually root for rich people to not get their head chopped off.
Acorn Media presents The Scarlet Pimpernel. Directed by: Clive Donner. Written by: William Bast. Starring: Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, Ian McKellen and Julian Fellowes. Running Time: 136 minutes. Released: April 30, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.