And indeed, "Nancy Astor" starts out as dismally as those three. Young Nancy, played by Annabelle Lanyon, is a precocious little Southern girl who suddenly awakens to suffering and injustice when she accompanies a missionary and and visits some neighboring mountain folk who appear outfitted for cameo roles in Deliverance II When Lanyon is replaced by Lisa Harrow, who plays Nancy Astor from the point of adolescence, the character's main preoccupation is an aversion to men.
April 30, 1984
. . .The script of Nancy Astor is skillful; Lisa Harrow is splendid. Still, eight hours is a lot of hats and horses. . .
VISCOUNT WALDORF ASTOR—BY MOST accounts, a rather sweet man even if he was John Jacob Astor's great-great-grandson—explained to a women's group at dinner in December 1944. "When I married Nancy. I hitched my wagon to a star, and when I got into the House of Commons in 1910. I found that I had hitched my wagon to a shooting star. In 1919 when she got into the House. I found that I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V-2 rocket."
Perhaps you had to have been her husband to appreciate the fireworks. I am less than dazzled by her television story, in spite of a dynamite performance by Lisa Harrow. We won't be finished with Nancy Astor (Sundays; 9 P.M.: PBS) until June. By then you, too, may be wondering why the BBC devoted eight long hours to her. In fact, the BBC devoted nine long hours, but the new Masterpiece Theatre mini-series has been trimmed to eight for American eyes. Even so, eight hours is a lot of hats, horses, and umbrellas.
Nancy had many more hats than she had ideas, and spent more time around horses than Catherine the Great, and I don't know what to say about the ubiquitous umbrellas. Raised against the sun. against the rain, maybe they are meant to symbolize appeasement.
But the BBC, like the British tabloids, adores aristocrats. Their houses are big, and their servants are cute, and when they aren't eating immense amounts of overcooked food, they stand around on their broad, rolled lawns like croquet hoops waiting for history to pop through the holes in their heads.
If mirabile dictum, the aristocrat happens to be not only female but also an American: if she was born in Virginia in 1879, the spirited daughter of a defeated Confederacy, and traumatized by missionaries at age eleven: if she was married, briefly and hysterically, to a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin Robert Could Shaw, who played polo, womanized, and drank too much; and if after a divorce and a grand tour, she settled down for the next 50 years with the rich, hapless, and Oxford-educated Waldorf, at stately Cliveden, and became the first woman ever officially to agitate in the House of Commons—well then, you can imagine the production values, and so did the BBC. Nancy Astor is duck meat for the eyes, rich almost to the retching point, with crisp skin and enough subcutaneous fat to float the Golden Hind. But please, sir, may we have some more meaning?
Nancy was a character and an exhibitionist. (At age 75 at a children's party, she turned a cartwheel.) She was a tireless goad. (Poor Waldorf was shamed into politics when she said. The only Astor who ever did anything worthwhile was the one who shot skunks.") She was, occasionally, witty. (Asked by a reporter how it fell to be married to a multimillionaire, she replied. "The first few minutes are the worst.") She could be memorably, outwitted. (To Churchill, she said. "Winston, if I were married to you. I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he responded, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.") She had the courage of her promiscuous opinions. (In Russia, she lectured Stalin on how children ought to be taught. At home, at Cliveden, when Waldorf had a bad heart, she refused to allow him to consult a doctor, because she had converted, passionately, to Christian Science.) And she insisted on having the last word. (When her children gathered at her final illness, she wanted to know. "Am I dying or is this my birthday?")
Nancy also had other opinions. She hated sex—"acting like animals"—as much as she hated alcohol and cigarettes. Nor did she care for Catholics and Jews. Although her friends included T. E. Lawrence, who taught her to ride a motorcycle, and George Bernard Shaw, who accompanied her to the Soviet Union, she seems to have confined her reading to Mary Baker Eddy and Rudyard Kipling. On the most important issue she had to face during her entire career in politics—whether England ought to do something to stop Hitler— she was completely, busily, noisily wrong, even after Czechoslovakia. At Cliveden, one simply wasn't beastly to the Germans, which is why Charles Lindbergh liked so much to spend his weekends there.
Of course, she favored women's rights, although the more radical feminists were never invited to Cliveden, unlike Joachim von Ribbentrop. And she was kind to other people's children, while neglecting her own. And she was a favored Tory in the slums of Plymouth, even if her favorite cause was Temperance. (The BBC loves noblesse oblige.) And she was buried as she had wished, "wrapped in a confederate flag." (The BBC loves dottiness.) And she must have been beautiful. (BBC especially loves the Sargent portrait of her, in which, for once, she wasn't wearing a hat)
The novelist and screenwriter Derek Marlowe is responsible for all eight hours of Nancy Astor and has done a solid, skillful job. The liberties he takes with the historical record seem to me minor, although surviving Astor children have complained. Those children ought to keep their mouths shut. Like Nancy's affectionate biographer. Christopher Sykes. Marlowe is willing to excuse almost all of her sins against political intelligence and domestic decency. Like Sykes. he finds "contradictions" of character where most of us would see muddle-headedness. Richard Stroud directs with the measured, beveled, waltzlike flair we have come to expect from the BBC when the BBC is doing what it does best, about which more in a minute.
What splendid acting in a dubious cause! Lisa Harrow is asked to handle Nancy's intractables from age 17 (tomboy) to 75 (dowager). In doing so. she manages to suggest, as if by revolving door, Katharine Hepburn. Glenda Jackson. Maggie Smith, and—I am serious— Nanette Fabray. I haven't admired an actress and disliked a character so much since Fleur in The Forsythe Saga. The other members of a fine cast must brush like cats at the hem of her skirt. That Pierce Brosnan as Robert Gould Shaw, is particularly good should come as a surprise only to those who haven't watched him every week on NBC's Remington Steele. As Bobbie Shaw, tortured, alcoholic, and homosexual, Nigel Havers is superb, even if one wishes this role were retired from the BBC's repertoire of wet decadents. James Fox as Waldorf. Lisa Hilboldt as Nancy's sister. Phyllis, Julian Glover as Lord Revelstoke, and David Warner as Philip Ken - could not be bettered. They are however, if not cats, then moons in Harrow's extraordinary light, poised in her pull.
Now. what does the BBC do best? What the BBC does best is to forgive the British ruling class, left and right, far too easily. The "Cliveden set" may not have been pro-Nazi conspirators, but they did articulate, for an influential decade, the rationale for appeasement, and not only in their drawing rooms but in both houses of Parliament and in both family newspapers. Let's not forget that Waldorf owned the Observer, and his brother owned the Times, and they ought to have felt rotten about themselves, and so should the BBC.