This four-part mini-series, originally broadcast on British television in 1978, provides a curious view into the life and career of Benjamin Disraeli, the controversial 19th century political leader who served twice as Britain’s prime minister. As presented here, Disraeli was an arrogant, scheming, self-promoting opportunist who exploited the generous connections of the rich and influential to engineer his rise in politics. If he possessed any redeeming emotional or intellectual virtues, they are not on display in this showcase.
David Butler’s screenplay encapsulates the genuine tumult and drama of Disraeli’s life into a series of middling-to-interminable vignettes set in a seemingly endless number of drawing rooms and private clubs. The first episode is almost impossible to endure, as a young Disraeli used his minor celebrity as a romantic novelist to crash high society’s dismally dull tea parties and banquets. By doing this, he gains entry into the privileged world of the ruling elite, where he charms a parade of less-than-charming society women, who in turn nudge their seemingly clueless husbands to support Disraeli’s blatantly transparent political ambitions.
Butler’s screenplay never bothers to show if Disraeli was a genuinely talented writer (the mini-series suggests he was a hack, although many scholars would violently disagree). Nor does this production offer insight on how (or if) he eventually used his political power to improve his country. This Disraeli is little more than a windbag in House of Common debates and a living Pez dispenser of tart bon-mots – if he did a stitch of work, it’s not clear.
Also absent from this mini-series is the thorny question of Disraeli’s religious convictions. Born to a Jewish family, he converted to the Anglican faith for reasons that are never explained; it’s also not clear how his family felt about his abandonment of Judaism. Although never viewed as a Christian by his foes, this Disraeli never shows any particular attachment to his family’s heritage beyond a brief defense of the exclusion of Baron Rothschild from the House of Commons over the controversy of the so-called Christian oath.
Part of the production’s problem could also lie in Ian McShane’s cranky and detached performance as Disraeli. Whatever charm Disraeli may have possessed in real life is not repeated by McShane, who walks through his role with a frozen gaze of contempt. It is hard to imagine any person allowing this character to join them for tea, let alone inviting them to run an entire country.
To its credit, “Disraeli” is blessed with handsome costume design, tasteful art direction, and a crisp pace courtesy from director Claude Whatham. There’s also a funny supporting performance by Rosemary Leach as Queen Victoria – the actress wittily channels Queen Elizabeth II posh speech pattern for her vocal interpretation of the 19th century monarch. Those distractions help the viewer muddle through this inert and confusing production.