The movies have been good to British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), who might otherwise not be remembered at all even though he produced some good work and claimed some significant admirers before depression and heavy drinking dissipated his gifts. Hitchcock’s Rope, two versions of Gaslight, and Hangover Square all remain eminently watchable today. But instead I am going to recommend what I believe is the most recent adaptation of Hamilton’s work, the six-part 1987 television mini-series The Charmer.
The plot: In 1930s Britain, Ralph Gorse is a suave chancer who desperately wants a life of ease, but has no interest in working honestly for it. Better to use his charm, wits, and ruthlessness to secure wealth and status. If some people — particularly women — are harmed or even killed along the way, so be it. Posing as a worldly ex-army officer with connections to high finance, he enchants and then mulcts Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach) an older, lonely, widow of means. This act enrages stolid businessman Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton) who had long been hoping for Joan to notice him. Even before Gorse has dumped Joan, he begins pursuing an upper class siren he actually cares about (Fiona Fullerton, at her pouty best) as well as some other women that he really doesn’t. As Gorse does increasingly horrible things to serve his sociopathic wants, Stimpson mercilessly follows his track, all the while frustrated that Gorse’s female victims continue to pine for him.
Women viewers swooned over the handsome Nigel Havers when this series was broadcast. Havers carries off Gorse’s aristocratic pretensions well, which is not surprising given that the actor is from a very posh background himself. The other elements of his performance are serviceable, but not in the league of the other leads. The late Rosemary Leach brings Plumleigh-Bruce alive as a woman caught between what her heart and head tell her about Gorse. She gives Joan an underlying strength such that even when she is conned and humiliated, she manages to retain some dignity. Bernard Hepton is just as good at slyly revealing Stimpson’s fundamental self-deception: He isn’t really a noble crusader, he’s just jealous as hell that Gorse gets all the things he himself yearns for but will never have.
The production mostly stays indoors, I presume out of need to recreate the period on a television mini-series budget. Those sets feel authentic, as do the clothes, cars, and music. I had not heard of Director Alan Gibson before, who sadly died young just after making this series, but his work here is solid. Finally, Alan Prior’s script is well-turned, even though he changed the ending in the source novel (Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse). If you want to know what that change was, read on.
SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ENDING
In the book, rather than being spurned by Joan Plumleigh-Bruce at the end as in the television series, Stimpson dumps her and runs off with her housemaid. Because that fits with my read of Stimpson as a much worse person than he sees himself as being, I prefer the book ending. At the same time, Leach really nailed the ending in the series, so it has its own pleasures.