Two Classic TV Series Finally Available on DVD
By: Ellis Nassour
PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre began business in 1971 with the American premiere of the engrossing, 12-part BBC series, The First Churchills, inspired by Sir Winston Churchill’s biographical writings about 17th-century ancestors, the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, John Churchill and Sarah Jennings, who defy family and friends by marrying for love instead of family fortune. It was released on VHS. Now, finally, Donald Wilson’s adaptation arrives in the digital age [Acorn; 12 episodes on three discs ([530 minutes); SRP $60].
The series follows the couple from their budding romance in the bawdy court of King Charles II through five tumultuous decades of monarchs of the House of Stuart, where they were trusted figures of the court. The dialogue is arch and courtly, but there’s plenty of gossip and more than a few dalliances.
John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Churchill, is a decorated military officer who built much of Charles’s army – never losing a battle. Susan Hampshire (The Forsyte Saga, a Brit series that helped launch public TV here), Sarah, in an Emmy-winning performance, is an aide and confidante to the Duchess of York.
The series is rife with juicy gossip and political intrigue, especially upon Charles’ death, including anti-Catholic sentiments that drive Charles’ stubborn successor, James II (John Westbrook), to Ireland to be replaced by William, Prince of Orange. With a European war raging, John’s is arrested due to royal paranoia. Meanwhile, Sarah’s close friendship to the future Queen Anne (the always watchable Margaret Tyzack) yields its share of drama. Through it all, the Churchills survive the regal madness.
Bonus material includes an interview with Hampshire; photo gallery; historical glossary; House of Stuart family tree; and 10-page insert with a sampling of the Churchills’ love letters.
Dr. Kildare: The Complete First Season (1961) [Warner Archive; 33 episodes on nine discs (1,700 minutes) including pilot; SRP $60], from Warner’s Manufactured on Demand catalog comes one of TV’s most popular and influential medical series. Richard Chamberlain, in his Golden Globe-winning role that rocketed him to fame, is the gifted intern. One of moviedom’s most respected and acclaimed actors, Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois [Oscar-nominated], The Fountainhead, East of Eden, Seven Angry Men – and, can you believe, only one Oscar nomination!), is his mentor, Dr. Gillespie, hospital’s chief of staff.
Created by pulp writer Max Brand in a 1936 magazine story, Dr. Kildare became a household word long before the 1960-1966 TV series. There were novels, 40s films [starring Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore], and a radio series.
Season One guest stars include a Who’s Who of show business: Mary Astor, Ellen Burstyn, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Malone, Lee Marvin, and Margaret O’Brien.
Young Dr. Kildare, of course, has his ideas on medicine and patient interactions, which come into conflict with his learned elder, whose philosophy is "Our job is to keep people alive, not to tell them how to live." Naturally, this being TV, it sets the stage for prime time soap-opera conflicts and subplots.