Mrs. Buce and I have been watching some of the old First Churchills series on DVD—the one that inaugurated “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS way back around 1970. I never saw it the first time, though I think all my friends did: I must have been humping to get tenure. It's fun to watch now, dated in ways that are both startling and intriguing, chiefly, I guess, because we are seeing it through the filter of so much that has gone since. This was a simpler time, before Blackadder, before Mel Brooks said “It's good, being the king,” before “Masterpiece Theatre” degenerated into “Mawsterpiece Theatre,” and became a downmarket version of itself.
Old-timers will recall that this is the one that featured Susan Hampshire as Sarah, Duchess of Malborough, and John Neville as the Duke. She had already established herself as the The English Rose in British TV soapers like What Katy Did and the Forsyte Saga. He is as handsome as 40 yards of pine paneling and about as wooden, but the part doesn't require much of him except to look worldly wise.
Susan Hampshire has played variants of the type throughout the rest of her career, but perhaps the most interesting comparison is with The Pallisers, which brought the PBS franchise to its full maturity. The fascinating point is how they are exactly the same plot: a husband and wife--a couple-- who scheme and intrigue together to advance each other's careers.
I suspect the Brirtish/PBS audience has always been predominantly female and that's fine But lately the strong and memorable roles have always been solos: broken-winged birds in need of loving care like Inspector Morse, or women on their own like Jane Tennison (or, one is tempted to say, before just about everybody with a union card undertook to play one or another of the Queens Elizabeth). The Churchills; display of connubial chumminess seems to come from some place back of beyond.