"Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic," a four-part Masterpiece Theater series that begins tomorrow at 9 p.m. on PBS, is still another entertainingly English equivalent of Skippy Peanut Butter Presents "You Are There."
This time we are in Queen Victoria's kingdom, rising with a bold and Byronesque sexual politician to the post prime minister. Benjamin Disraeli, as is made clear in the opening episode, was born a Jew. His father, however, chose a christening instead of a bar mitzvah, and the lad lusted after Parliament.
By all accounts, including this one, Disraeli was a fascinating fellow. He wrote novels satirizing the upper crust, but he knew what side his bread was buttered on.
He was 34 before his novelistic victims, charmed by his wit and ambition, succeeded in buying him his first seat in the House of Commons. By that time he had gained much worldly experience in eluding bill collectors and jealous husbands. By that time also Episode One has concluded.
It will take only three more Sundays for Disraeli to marry the rich widow Mary Ann Lewis, fall in love with her (after the fact), gain the admiration of his fellow MPs and the friendship of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and make his mark as prime minister of England.Even Disraeli could not rise so fast were it not for the help of Alistair Cooke, whose introductions fill the gaps with languid ease.
Disraeli remains as much an enigma today as he was in his time. An opportunist cruelly stricken with Thames Fever (cf. Potomac Fever), a dandy, a gifted writer, a Tory bent on social reform, he was a great statesman from the wrong side of the tracks.
It is doubtful that Masterpiece Theater will plumb the depths of this enigma in four hours, but then we do not so much want to psychoanalyze Disraeli as to enjoy him, and the first episode succeeds in allowing that.
Ian McShane, familiar as Judas in Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" and from several episodes of "Police Woman," plays the ambitious dandy as a bit understated rather than tortured by demons.
The portrayal is particularly useful, since it gives others in the cast the opportunity to indulge in small interpretations of interest. Disraeli's friend Bulwer, for example, gets a slight stutter at the hands of Brett Usher.
County D'Orsay is played by Leigh Lawson with a French accent of curious origin. Madlena Nedeva, as the pertipatetically flirtatious Henrietta Sykes, looks like a vestal virgin -- until she hops into bed with someone.
It is difficult not to wonder why American television comes off so differently than Masterpiece Theater television. Perhaps much of the answer is in the secondary roles. A series such as "Quincy" seems intent on letting only its star gain any depth of motivation, however shallow; "Disraeli" brings a half-dozen characters to brief life -- perhaps at Ian McShane's expense.
The music, by Wilfred Josephs, is characteristically fine, a haunting waltz to introduce the hero, then bits and snatches later to carry the business along. "I, Claudius" had a spooky, wonderful theme as well -- the British seem to insist on it. It may be that Dick Cavett's new introductory music -- darker and infinitely more mysterious than his former bubbling jazz motif -- is evidence that somebody is listening on This Side.
"Disraeli" is off to a good start, undeterred by the scope of its subject matter and not embarrassed to spend a fortune on costumes or hardly ever more out-of-doors.
It may be a masterpiece, but it's still Masterpiece Theater.