“Masterpiece Theater’s” first mini of the season proves a welcome reminder of just how good television can be. A perfect pairing of worthy material and dedicated talent, “Aristocrats” is yet another lavish costume drama in the classic “MT” mold. But unlike so many lesser efforts, this one moves across its historical canvas (18th century England and Ireland) with a determined sense of purpose and no end of surprises. That the tale is based on a real family, the Lennoxes, makes the series that much more potent.
At 4 1/2 hours, “Aristocrats” might seem too much of a commitment for less-than-dedicated “MT” viewers, but such is the nature of this series that one can drop in almost anywhere and be swept up in its plush current.
Like any complex story, this one has its longueurs, but relief, in the form of new subplots, comes nearly as soon as boredom sets in. The result is a panoramic view of mid- to late-18th century upper-crust life, with an emphasis on such domestic concerns as marriage, affairs of the heart, spoiled children, illness and death.
The story opens in 1743 London, with Caroline (Serena Gordon), the eldest Lennox daughter, still unmarried and her ostensibly indulgent parents, Lord and Lady Richmond (Julian Fellowes and Diane Fletcher) desperate to see her wed. But Caroline is an independent girl, and when she takes a liking to Henry Fox (Alun Armstrong), a politically ambitious untitled older man of no great fortune, her parents forbid the match. She elopes and is banished from the household — an especially severe blow to her sister Emily (Geraldine Somerville), who, in the voice of Sian Phillips, narrates the entire series.
Emily is less impulsive than Caroline and employs a different strategy to land Lord Kildare, a wealthy Irishman toward whom her parents are ambivalent.
Ultimately, Emily, now living in Ireland, brokers a peace between Caroline and their parents. But the harmony is short lived, as both Lord and Lady Richmond expire shortly thereafter. Per their wishes, the younger Lennoxes are to be raised by Emily and Lord Kildare, not Caroline and Mr. Fox. This presumed slighting once more engenders hurt feelings.
Raised in Ireland, the sweet-tempered Louisa (Anne-Marie Duff) finds a match in Thomas Conolly, a dim bulb who also happens to be the country’s richest man. Sarah (Jodhi May) isn’t as lucky. First romanced and then abandoned by the Prince of Wales (later George III), she marries the morose Charles Bunbury (Andrew Havill), only to embark on a ruinous affair. Later, the story continues into the next generation, primarily focusing on Emily’s son Edward Fitzgerald (John Light).
Such plot details make “Aristocrats” sound like pure suds, but there’s much more to Harriet O’Carroll’s sharp script. Her efforts, like those of helmer David Caffrey, are keenly observed social history in the best television tradition. And understanding these people and their concerns is one of this series’ prime rewards.
All of the acting is of the high caliber one has grown to expect from “MT” productions, but there are standouts even here. Armstrong plays Henry Fox in striking contrast to the well-mannered society in which he thrives. And Somerville’s Emily goes through a whole series of changes, many of which she tellingly depicts via facial expression; all four Lennox sisters come across as powerful and distinct personalities.
In lesser roles, Clive Swift makes an amusing and endearing appearance as George II; Luke De Lacy proves unexpectedly touching as his son, the Prince of Wales; and Philips does a turn as Emily quite late in the going.
But perhaps the greatest joy in “Aristocrats” comes from Gerry Scott’s production design; it’s beauty amplified by James Welland’s exquisite, lovingly lit camera work. That much of “Aristocrats” was actually filmed at the sites mentioned in the series only heightens the show’s impact.