This marvelous bit of television could easily come and go with none but the most addicted public-TV viewers to watch it. "I Remember Nelson" is not the most intriguing title, and Lord Horatio Nelson occupies a niche in English folklore and history that doesn't travel well across the Atlantic. Furthermore, the format--four different memories of Nelson--sounds like an easy docudrama format that could fall flat.
Instead, it rises round and yeasty, this first of four slices of Lord Nelson's life.
Tomorrow night's installment, at 9 on Channel 26, is told from the point of view of Nelson's betrayed wife, Fanny.
She is drab to the point of ugliness, and her fight for her husband's love is clearly lost to the robust beauty, Lady Hamilton, at the outset.
The history of the situation is revealed in dialogue. After the Battle of the Nile, in which he demolished the French fleet and Napoleon's ambitions to go on to conquer India, Lord Nelson and the British fleet repaired to Naples, where he met Lady Hamilton, the young wife of the aging ambassador to the king of Naples. Their romance began immediately, and when the three of them return to England, London is roaring both with the praises of Nelson and with rumors of randiness.
The drama begins at a theater. With poor Fanny in tow, and Lord Hamilton smiling in blissful ignorance, the four of them settle into their box at a pageant in Nelson's honor. The pageant is a wonderfully preposterous stage show in, presumably, the authentic 18th-century manner. A soprano dressed as a goddess sings of Nelson's glory. There are tableaux of the evil Napoleon, of the plucky boy Nelson exclaiming "I want to be an admiral!" The crowd boos and cheers, appropriately.
The anachronism of the pageant never becomes burlesque. Instead, with cold-eyed Flaubertian realism, it sets up the tension between the near-canonization of Lord Nelson and the small, brutal facts of life and love. Lady Hamilton retires from the box and we see her vomiting--she is pregnant with Nelson's child. Fanny sees her, too. At a dinner, Nelson is heartbreakingly callous to Fanny. He says that a five-year lull in his career, when he couldn't get a ship and had to stay home, was "hell on earth." He says this--and here's the subtlety and the realism--not out of malice but out of ignorance and pride. Then again, we get a sense of Fanny's powers when he tells the assemblage that as a youth he had "a sense of exultation" that may have foreshadowed later glory. It is a speech she interrupts by smashing a nut in a nutcracker.
Later, in the confrontation scene, Nelson admits his love for Lady Hamilton. He says to Fanny: "Life changes . . . you cannot expect me to be the man I was 15 years ago." He is famous now, he has watched men being torn, literally, into flesh and blood. "I am no more than that," he says.
Fanny asks if the others who fought with him "all come home and commit adultery? Of course, life does have different rules if you're Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile." She warns that Lady Hamilton is playing upon his ego, which she certainly is, and that Nelson will end his days "with everyone hating you" or in "a madhouse."
A separation follows, with a generous settlement from Lord Nelson, accompanied by the proviso that Fanny never contact him.
She continues to love him while ruing his pride in his fame and stature, her pride being in her love.
The victory is hers, in the end, not because Nelson ends his life in disgrace. He doesn't. But in a scene years later, with Nelson long dead, Fanny is being rowed around a Swiss lake by Lord Byron. She says: "It took me 20 years to realize that the pain doesn't last." She talks about falling in love with Nelson with an equanimity that would have chilled the hero who had no doubt fed on her adoration even as he repelled it.
Byron asks her about Lady Hamilton. Fanny says she scarcely remembers her. "The only thing I can remember about her is that she had dirty hair." That night at the theater, in the pageant for Nelson's triumphant return, Fanny says, "she let it fall and I remember thinking, how could my husband love a woman with dirty hair?"
She says this with no more malice than Nelson bore her when he abandoned her, but she says it with all her love intact.
The moral of this first of four memories of Nelson is that love conquers all.
The quality of this production--the photography, the acting, the sets and costumes--is right up there with the best the Brits have sent us.
The nuances! What these actors tell us about their characters with sheer craft! Kenneth Colley as Nelson and Anna Massey as Fanny are particularly fine. Geraldine James, as Lady Hamilton, isn't on screen long in this episode, but demonstrates the appeal and contradictions of her character at first sight.
It should be noted that this production comes from a commercial British company, ITC Entertainment, and the risks taken are as great as those in any other television success from over there.
It is subtle and it is oblique, but it's marvelous.
Three episodes will follow. The points of view will include that of a naval officer, a seaman and the cuckolded Lord Hamilton. The last episode takes place on the H.M.S. Victory, when Nelson dies in the Battle of Trafalgar.