Alive again, Lord Louis Mountbatten strolls briskly into his living room and sits down on a couch fit for a king. His dog rests its head on Mountbatten's leg as he begins to tell the story not only of his life, but also of the wonderful terrible century in which it was lived.
"Lord Mountbatten: A Man for the Century" was to have been shown on PBS next year, to celebrate the statesman and hero's 80th birthday.But the air date was moved up after Mountbatten was murdered by Irish terrorists in August; the first of eight hours about and with Mountbatten can be seen on Channel 26 tonight at 9 (or 9:30, depending on PBS' interview with Ayatollah Khomeini).
It is a program that speaks worlds about worlds -- worlds long lost and retrievable only through memory and the camera.
"What astonishing times they have been," Mountbatten says near the beginning of the program, and the assessment is borne out with beautifully restored footage (some of it shot by Mountbatten) and with Mountbatten's invaluable commentary and reminiscence. The first program covers roughly the first 20 years in the life of Mountbatten and the century he is a man for.
"My mother was Queen Victoria's granddaughter," he says matter-of-factly at the outset. Throughout the program his references to royal relatives and the late great aristocracy have a captivating, transporting effect; "My cousin David, the Prince of Wales," splashes in a shipboard tub with Mountbatten as the two of them tour the Empire aboard the HMS Renown after the end of World War I.
When the ship crossed the equator, cousin David, referred to briefly as "HRH," is soundly dunked by members of the crew. And when the ship stops at New Zealand, 6,000 children have been arranged to spell out WELCOME at the port.
The poignance and charm of these old films, coupled with "Dickie's" spoken memoirs, are sublime.
Of course, a way of life was ending, sometimes abruptly; "My cousin Anastasia was bayonnetted 18 times as she lay there screaming," Mountbatten recalls of Russia's October Revolution.
The script by John Terraine is helpful and orderly, but it is Mountbatten's recollections that give the program an incomparably authentic dash. He remembers how he was beaten by an officer in the Royal Navy, at the age of 16, for having a loose seam in his uniform -- "barbaric, I suppose, but we expected it" -- and how almost comically virulent anti-German sentiment became in Britain as war loomed: "They'd even kick dachshunds in the street."
Mountbatten began work on the series in 1967 and it was shown in 12 one-hour installments by Britain's ITV the following year. Stephen Dick, who produced the American version, said it had to be edited down to 8 hours because it was "terribly, terribly, British" and some segments were of too little potential interest to audiences here.
The original British narrator was replaced by Micahel Tolan, but the program remains faithful to the version produced and directed for ITV by Peter Morley. Dick says there is another excellent hour on, and with, Mountbatten -- the obituary he himself helped the BBC prepare -- but "there's no way we can afford it" because of the high price tag the BBC has put on it.
Only minimally disruptive and pretentious is a tacked-on introduction by Robert MacNeil who has the gall to lecture, "Remind yourself as you're watching just who is talking to you" -- another nannygram from PBS.
The program itself is absorbing and revealing. Mountbatten may have been incurably imperial as a personality, but he was munificent to a fault in permitting this privileged look into his extraordinary life and times.