‘The Prince and The Pauper’ (1976, DVD) reviewed

❉ Double trouble from Nicholas Lyndhurst, and a Who’s Who of Who.

“This is an extremely fine version of a well-known story and also a great example of the kind of serials the BBC did so well at the time.”

The BBC Classics series are something of a forgotten gem in the BBC crown. Maybe it’s the fact that they were on year in year out in the Sunday teatime slot or that many of us were encouraged to watch them because it was they were somehow more for education rather than entertainment that they don’t seem to be as remembered as fondly as they should be.

The Prince and the Pauper is a tale of two identical boys, one a poor boy desperate for an education and one the heir to the throne of England, Prince Edward. The two boys happen to meet and the Prince suggests swapping places for a few hours so each can see what the other’s life is like, but when both spend more time in the roles than planned, they find that life on the other side isn’t as wonderful as they might have thought.

1976’s The Prince and the Pauper was Barry Letts’ first association with the BBC classic serials. He’d go on to produce, write and direct serials for the ten years that followed this. His first serial plays very much to his strengths as a technical director following his time on Doctor Who.  The story gives him a chance to use his expertise with CSO and split screen techniques for the scenes where Prince Edward meets his doppelgänger Tom Canty. These scenes work extremely well and often it’s hard to tell just how Letts has achieved the shots. In a serial that relies very much on the credibility of these scenes, this works very well.

Barry Letts’ influence extends wider than his just his technical prowess. The cast list will be very familiar to anyone who has watched any of his Doctor Who stories, as it is very much from the Letts reperatory of  actors, with roles for actors such as Martin Friend, Eastenders’ June Brown, Bernard Kay, Donald Eccles, Nina Thomas,  Max Faulkner and Dave Carter. Even regular Doctor Who stuntman Stuart Fell gets a role, showing off his circus skills as a juggler in one of the street scenes.

The real star though is Nicholas Lyndhurst, here at 14 in one of his earliest roles. Even at this early stage of his career he displays a very real talent, making Prince Edward and Tom Canty very different characters despite looking exactly the same. Prince Edward is rightly regal and superior while Tom is more down to earth but full of inquisitiveness and a sense of what’s right that leads him into trouble when he takes Edward’s place in court and eventually on the throne. Lyndhurst excels in showing how out of his depth Tom is in his new royal circumstances, from the joy at the food he has to eat through the fear he has when meeting the courtiers but most especially the way he has to pretend not to recognize his own mother when she is brought in to court to receive alms from the newly crowned King. This contrasts nicely with the scenes of Edward protesting he’s the rightful King when he’s captured by Tom’s vicious father and subjected to violent attacks and other indignities that don’t befit his station in life. Lyndhurst is compelling throughout, especially for a 14 year old and it’s no surprise that he’s had a fantastic career following this production.

Special mention should also be made of Ronald Radd, who plays a weary and old Henry VIII nearing the end of his life. Radd, who died tragically early not long after this production is fantastic, giving Henry both the command the role deserves, but also a gentleness and weariness of an old King who knows his time of passing is coming. He’s superb in all his scenes, especially so the death bed scenes where Radd really brings to life the King’s visions as he dies. It’s a real high point of the serial and rather moving.

The classic serials are often remembered as rather gentle and slow, but this is not the case with this production. The violent murder of Tom’s tutor, Father Andrew by John Canty is a really shocking moment as are the threats of violence made to Prince Edward, though these are mostly implied due to its broadcast timeslot.  There are some excellent fight sequences and the whole production is well paced and gripping throughout. It’s a very well made production, with great sets (as you’d expect from the BBC of this period) from Kenneth Sharp and the usual excellent costumes from Oscar winner James Acheson.

This is an extremely fine version of a well-known story and also a great example of the kind of serials the BBC did so well at the time. Simply Media are to be applauded for digging deep into the archives and bringing this release and I hope it’s not the last dip into the classic serials from the 1970s and 1980s and I’m sure there are many more worth rediscovering.

❉ Directed by Barry Letts and starring Nicholas Lyndhurst, ‘The Prince and The Pauper’ is out now on DVD from Simply Media, RRP £14.99. Apply the discount code CULT10 to get 10% off all orders on the Simply Media website www.simplyhe.com. If you apply the code at checkout you will get 10% off. Following this link will also automatically apply this discount: https://www.simplyhe.com/discount/CULT10

❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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