Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel
This week I wasn’t in the mood for any more celebrity travelogues, even if Gregg Wallace was shouting his way around Rome. (‘This pizzeria produces six thousand pizzas A DAY! You’re the fella who puts the cheese on? That’s a VERY IMPORTANT JOB!’*)
And as I wasn’t in the mood for some swish new Sky drama concerning mobsters or bankers and complex financial deals I wouldn’t understand, I opted instead for a show that is now 50 years old.
Why not? Weird times and all that. Plus, it’s a show I remember (albeit vaguely) as one of those massive hits as watched by the entire nation, more or less, and I wanted to know: could it, would it, stand up today?
And if you’re not into shouty Gregg and complex financial deals, might this be the series you should be getting into?
The show is Elizabeth R, first broadcast in 1971 and never repeated until now, as far as I can ascertain. It followed the huge success of The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and adopted the same prize-winning formula with six different playwrights taking a different slice of the monarch’s life and writing a 90-minute drama.
Elizabeth R starred Glenda Jackson (above) throughout, whose own hair was shaved off to achieve Elizabeth’s high forehead
The BBC’s director of programmes during that period was a ‘David Attenborough’. I do wonder what became of him.
It starred Glenda Jackson throughout, whose own hair was shaved off to achieve Elizabeth’s high forehead and who, later in the series, would have to spend a daily six hours in the make-up chair and wear dresses so heavy that: 1) she couldn’t bend her arms, and 2) she had to remain seated.
The first episode, written by John Hale, focuses on her younger years and the decade from when she was 15 to her accession at 25. It opens with Sir Thomas Seymour’s (brother of Henry VIII’s wife Jane) attempted abduction of her sickly half-brother, King Edward VI, and already you’ve hit pause and are on Wikipedia.
Who was Seymour? Did he really kill Edward’s little dog? What was Edward dying of? This does pre-suppose some knowledge, and it doesn’t spoon-feed, but if it were a modern treatment, then it would be exposition, exposition, exposition.
And I know which I prefer.
This was a dangerous, turbulent decade for Elizabeth, who was plotted against constantly and became the unintentional figurehead of a Protestant rebellion when her half-sister Mary, a devout Roman Catholic, succeeded to the throne.
It is shaped as a political thriller, and at one point Elizabeth is thrown into the Tower and is within an hour of having her own head chopped off. God knows what she’d make of today’s Royals finding life tough and running off to California.
Wouldn’t mind seeing her on Oprah, though.
This is dated in some respects. The sets are very boring and brown and plainly cheap. There is no action. Instead, the narrative is propelled either by bearded men talking in rooms or bearded men whispering in corridors.
There are a lot of bearded men talking or whispering and they all look the same. You will often be wondering: which beard is this? But the language – ‘I may not be a lion but I am a lion’s cub and have a lion’s heart’ – is entirely glorious, as is Jackson’s performance.
A born actress, surely, she is mesmerisingly eloquent and convincing – particularly in her journey from girl to Queen – and gives us a sense not only of Elizabeth’s arc but also her wit, intelligence and humanity.
I should also say that Daphne Slater, as Mary, is similarly wonderful. Usually, Mary is seen as a crazed, heretic-burning Catholic, but this is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who desperately wished to be loved, not least by her husband (Philip II of Spain), who could not oblige – she is, he complains, ‘old, ugly and barren’ – and who thought she was finally carrying an heir when, in fact, the growth in her womb was cancer.
Incredibly tragic, incredibly well written and performed. Fifty years old, but as gripping as anything today.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel is the four-part docuseries that I watched so you don’t have to. Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian student who, in 2013, disappeared from the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles while she was travelling across the US.
This went all around the houses, often pointlessly. There was the drawn-out narrative of the hotel’s seedy past – accompanied by endless drone shots – plus acres of time spent with ‘web sleuths’ and ‘YouTubers’ sharing baseless conspiracies.
I knew nothing about the case and kept expecting some discovery to drop, but that never happened. Instead, everything you did discover had been known right at the outset, and this not only strung you along for four hours but did so sensationally.
Flashbacks. Re-enactments. The constant replaying of footage of Elisa in the hotel lift.
The truth, once revealed, was extraordinarily sad, and didn’t even involve a ‘crime scene’ as such. This was exploitative. Of us, and of her. But now I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. I am good like that.
* I didn’t watch but am guessing that’s how it went.