"Not too tight, old boy," says Ralph Gorse at the end of The Charmer. We've spent nearly 312 minutes leading up to this point. They are 312 well spent minutes.
Gorse (Nigel Havers) is a charming English con man in the early Thirties. He lives by his amoral wits, seducing, enticing and working the side deals. He wants everything he isn't and everything he hasn't. Eventually he works his way up to murder. The Charmer, a wonderful Masterpiece Theater presentation now twenty years old, maintains every bit of its queasy allure, thanks in large part to Havers, to Rosemary Leach and to Bernard Hepton. Leach plays Joan Plumleigh-Bruce, a somewhat frumpy upper-middle class, snobbish Englishwoman, a widow who attracts Gorse's attention because of her property and her income. Hepton plays Donald Stimpson, a man who wears round, thick eyeglasses, has a rather silly mustache and is a property broker. He is a long-time friend and wooer of Joan, and he also fancies a marriage to her, to her income and to her property. The idea of a regular bit of the old bed springs is attractive to Stimpson, too. When Gorse meets Donald and, through him, Joan, the main pieces in this sly, malicious and self-serving game come into play.
In the course of this six-part series we will watch Gorse woo and manipulate, empty bank accounts, impregnate, cause a fire with fatal results, seduce, and murder. Following his trail like a middle-aged, self-serving angel of retribution is Donald. And Donald pulls along in his wake Joan, a woman who knows she was had and scorned, who still loves her Rafe but has Donald whispering to her that Rafe must be held accountable. Donald, of course, would like nothing better than to see Gorse brought down, partly because he detests Gorse and partly because he is sure that will be the path back to Joan's heart, bed and finances.
Is there anyone likable in this drama? Not really, and that's so satisfying. It is the ability of Gorse, Joan and Donald to ignore their real motives and fail to hide their real moral characters from us that gives us so much pleasure. By the end of the drama, Gorse, Joan and Donald each in their own way find a comeuppance that allows us to think our own upright moral characters might even be real.
Nigel Havers has a particularly tough job giving us the picture of Ralph Gorse. Havers must show us what a heel the man is, yet he also must make us see Gorse's charm. We know when Gorse is thinking up some disreputable betrayal for his own benefit. We can see how he is justifying a death. Havers also is able to show us how seductive, how pleasant, how companionable Gorse can be when he wants to. Rosemary Leach gives us a wonderful portrayal of a singularly unlikable, self-deluding woman who wants to be loved, who flutters at Gorse's attentions, who rather likes Donald's insistent courting and who thinks nothing of giving her young Irish maid condescending disdain. And last, we have Bernard Hepton, in my view one of the best of Britain's skilled character actors. With those thick glasses and that mustache, Hepton turns Donald Stimpson into a figure of slightly pompous amusement for us; that is, until we begin to realize just how resentful Stimpson is becoming, and how relentless he is in the pursuit of bringing down Gorse. Hepton turns Stimpson into a little man dangerous to underestimate, who simply won't let go.
The Charmer is murderous black comedy that is a great deal of fun, and features three outstanding performances.