ELIZABETH R exemplifies the concept of television as 'electronic theatre'; in fact, few attempts are made to present the drama as anything other than theatre. There is some effective exterior filming: Elizabeth's arrival at the Tower of London is among the series' most memorable sections. Such sequences allow a few moments of ventilation in what is a rather claustrophobic viewing experience. Although the sets and the exquisite costumes are eye-catching, attention is focused on the actors and the scripts.
John Hale's THE LION'S CUB is not as coherent as the other episodes, covering a longer period, and featuring many characters. Such problems aside, it is one of the best episodes. It would be impossible to comprehend Elizabeth's subsequent actions without knowing something of her highly traumatic youth; yet many dramatisations of her life eschew this pivotal and richly dramatic time. This episode provides harrowing drama, and it is perhaps the most adept at enabling the viewer to identify with Elizabeth on a human level. The development of her shrewd political skill, as well as her personal fear of intimacy and its potential dangers, is especially well realised.
The next two episodes centre on what little romance was present in the life of the 'Virgin Queen'. Rosemary Anne Sisson's THE MARRIAGE GAME, perhaps the best episode, highlights the tension between Elizabeth's coquettish nature and her determination to remain chaste. Her contrary conduct resulted in degrading gossip abroad, and terrible anxiety at home. This episode and Julian Mitchell's THE SHADOW IN THE SUN admirably capture this pervasive uncertainty; the latter provides a subtle exploration of Elizabeth's psychological motivations for not marrying, showing how impossible she found it to trust anyone with the secrets of her heart. It is, though, the least historically accurate episode.
Hugh Whitemore's HORRIBLE CONSPIRACIES showcases Elizabeth's chronic indecisiveness, but still makes the maligned Mary Stuart its villain. The viewer is unlikely to be affected by her grisly fate; aside from being surprised at its graphic depiction. Another drawback is the absence of some of the vital players in the drama – Burghley, Leicester, et alia – who form such a convincing 'court' around Elizabeth in the preceding episodes. The final scene is unpleasant and overwritten, but it is mostly a tightly-plotted instalment.
John Prebble's THE ENTERPRISE OF ENGLAND boasts the best script, featuring plenty of quotable dialogue. It is, essentially, a fine satire, showing the almost farcical events of the Armada. However, it lacks a central protagonist, and some of its characters do not come across as particularly human, but as historical figures. There are two delightful exceptions – Francis Drake and John Tregannon – and the Elizabeth/Leicester scenes, as well as the finale, are excellent. They provide the humanity which is otherwise lacking in this entertaining and witty history lesson.
Ian Rodger's SWEET ENGLAND'S PRIDE, the weakest episode, is a somewhat disappointing rendition of the fascinating power struggle between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex; giving undue attention to Essex's time in Ireland, it virtually ignores the relationship between the ageing Gloriana and the youthful earl. Essex's uprising, capture, and trial are all perfect fodder for a gripping drama, yet they are omitted from this production, except for passing references. However, this episode succeeds in conveying the poignancy of outliving one's own generation, something which coloured Elizabeth's later years. Her final speech and last hours are memorably recreated.
Towering above all other achievements of this production is the marvellous central performance of Glenda Jackson. Jackson takes the viewer on an extraordinary journey. She is equally remarkable whether she is depicting regal dignity, mortal terror, light-hearted flirtation, wily out-manoeuvring, or world-weary old age. Above all, she is convincing as a monarch. Only an Elizabeth with the indomitable nature and imposing presence of Jackson's creation could have commanded the respect of her male subjects. She also has moments of sublime delicacy: her nearly silent demeanour, whilst hearing the details of Mary Stuart's demise, is a masterly portrayal of deeply felt horror, grief, and guilt.
Such is the force of the series' central performance that the viewer could be forgiven for forgetting the supporting actors. With the exception of Vivian Pickles' turn as Mary Stuart – which allows her none of the exceptional charm for which she was famed – all the actors acquit themselves commendably. Robert Hardy, Ronald Hines, Stephen Murray, and John Shrapnel present strong support; and there are several memorable actors in smaller roles, such as Hamilton Dyce, John Woodvine, Michael Culver, and Bernard Hepton. However, there is only one cast member who achieves the Herculean feat of matching Jackson's power: Daphne Slater as Mary Tudor. This very fine actress delivers an outstanding performance; her scenes with Jackson provide the only moments when the latter does not entirely command the viewer's attention. Queen Mary I is so often denigrated, misunderstood, or simply dismissed as a fanatical, vindictive murderess. One of ELIZABETH R's triumphs is its considered, unbiased, and measured portrayal of this truly tragic queen.
Jackson's contribution adds to the theatrical quality of the production, but this description is no criticism: this aspect of her performance elevates the series, giving it a combined intimacy and sense of inspiration which is usually found only in the theatre. Far from the epic, visual delights that can be found in a film, ELIZABETH R offers something no less compelling: a piece of acting so transcendent that it almost obliterates the production's shortcomings, and ensures that the experience of watching this series will not be easily forgotten.