The Shadow of the Tower s01e13 – The King Without a Face

This episode is a direct continuation of the last, but from James Maxwell’s king’s perspective. At least at the start, tragedies quickly start changing it up and Queen Norma West ends up with the most to do… then the episode brings Maxwell in and gives them a joint focus, then it shifts to Maxwell for the finish. In most ways, the episode fulfills the promises of the first couple episodes and nothing since. It doesn’t matter “In the Shadow of the Tower” turned into a phenomenal anthology series about Henry’s rule or went to crap because of the Richard Warwick episodes–The King Without a Face very ably rids the show of any residual Warwick stench. It’s a good closing episode, though problematic as far as the show’s legacy.

Anyway. The episode covers a lot of time and a lot of events and a lot of reactions to these various events, usually with West and Maxwell. The biggest supporting player here is John Bennett as the Spanish ambassador. He’s been kicking around the show for a while, at least the last few episodes, but he’s never gotten such a good part as in Face. He and Maxwell end up having this wonderful character relationship as events make Bennett the only political ally Maxwell can stomach being around. Doesn’t hurt Bennett’s a complete lush.

There’s a lot of character development for West and Maxwell (nothing about them arranging the murder of her cousin last episode but whatever, there’s still a lot of other good character reveals); the episode finally gives West a great part, something I’d been assuming the show would do since the first episode (and then didn’t). Maxwell gets an excellent arc too with some really chewy scenes.

“In the Shadow of the Tower” starts all right, ends all right, has some great episodes in the middle, and some middling and worse towards the end. It’s a mixed bag as an anthology. It’s still successful, but it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been. If only they’d cast Warwick’s part with someone who could act.

This episode makes up for a lot.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e12 – The Fledgling

I really had no idea how far “Shadow” could drop, did I? I mean, The Fledgling manages to be the worst episode of the series (with only one left) and with Richard Warwick in it but nowhere near the worst part. Though, to be fair, Warwick is in a much reduced role compared to the last two episodes. Instead, Christopher Neame is the lead, playing the grown-up Earl of Warwick (who was in the first couple episodes). He’s been living in the Tower of London since Henry (James Maxwell) came to power and spends his life in his rooms, rarely getting to go outside, very little contact with anyone other than his keepers. Maxwell had promised to never kill him but Neame always thinks the order is coming.

This episode is about how and why the order finally comes. See, Maxwell wants to marry off his son (Jason Kemp) to the princess of Spain and the Spanish rulers demand he kill Warwick and Neame. The throne must be secured and the Spanish see those two guys as problems. Only Maxwell doesn’t want to kill them; they didn’t do anything after all. He doesn’t seem to remember promising not to kill Neame, but then Queen Norma West also doesn’t seem to remember she didn’t want Maxwell to kill him back in the first couple episodes either.

So Maxwell and his people come up with a plan. Convince Neame there’s a plot against him to try to get him to commit treason with Warwick (the actor who’s not playing the Earl of Warwick) so Maxwell can kill them both. Neame he just has to terrorize with innuendo but Warwick they throw man-meat Hayward Morse to inspire Warwick’s lust for multiple things, including treason.

Neame’s not great, but he’s at least trying with the part; his character’s been isolated for ten years, with all sorts of psychological issues no doubt. He’s sympathetic as all hell, which just makes it worse when Maxwell’s so callous about killing him.

Making Maxwell evil, with one episode to go, is a weird flex. It’s a disappointing episode to be sure.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e11 – The Strange Shapes of Reality

Oh, no, Richard Warwick is back. And now we’re getting the story of his time just imprisoned, because the king (James Maxwell) pities him so won’t just execute him. Executing him means taking him seriously as a threat to the crown and Warwick can’t be seen as a threat. And so on and so forth. So we get an entire episode about Warwick being a brat in captivity, but his keepers still give him a blind boy. Like… literally, a blond, blind boy to comfort Warwick. Meanwhile Warwick’s wife, Elizabeth MacLennan, has to learn to deal with being nobility falsely married off to a pretender and how’s she going to cope. Plus there’s the whole thing where her identity is changing completely out of her control and through no fault of her own. Everyone lied to her and used her as a pawn.

MacLennan’s good. Like, the episode’s not good, but MacLennan’s good. And her story arc, where Maxwell sees her as a pal so much MacLennan gets confronted by Marigold Sharman (as the king’s mother), which leads to a good enough scene. Shame they can’t bring the same humanity to Warwick.

So, again, there’s stuff in the script for Warwick to work with. He gets to see how a real king—Maxwell—behaves. He gets humiliated at public confessions. He has these potentially great scenes opposite MacLennan. But Warwick’s just too flat. His take on the character is he’s too stupid to know what’s going on, which clashes with the various acts of agency he’s had throughout this episode and last. It’s kind of what he was like in the first appearance small part, but Warwick really ought to have tried to develop the character past that point… But he didn’t, because Warwick’s bad.

At this point, I’m just hoping “Tower” doesn’t drop too much further or I’m going to be eating my words on the comedy episodes making it all worth it. Because it’s worse than just mediocre, it’s a misfire. The show has done much better and much, much better. Warwick is bleeding the show.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e10 – The Man Who Never Was

I was unprepared for The Man Who Never Was, even acknowledging the anthology nature of the show, which has had great successes, could also have great failures. And the episode is most definitely a failure. But because of casting. It’s a strange episode in general—lots of flashbacks, lots of seventies sly “oh, maybe he likes boys” hints, which then get more explicit and then what the show seems to think is obvious but it’s really sexual assault. Okay, maybe not all of it is casting this episode. Maybe director Darrol Blake just has the wrong take on how to present a lot of things. But even if he’s askew, he’s not responsible for lead Richard Warwick.

Warwick is a pretender to the throne, the most popular one, but as King James Maxwell’s reign has continued and hell hasn’t frozen over, he’s lost favor. He was in the last episode for so short a scene I didn’t remember it was Warwick, who looks so much like Dylan Walsh in am eighties blond surfer wig it’s distracting. So I was blank slate with Warwick here and, wow, is he terrible. He’s “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a bad performance on the BBC” bad. It’s like someone in casting owed a really, really, really big favor and Warwick was it.

So even though the script offers a lot of direct and indirect possibilities for the role, Warwick plays it like he’s an idiot. Sure, a victim of sorts, but because he’s an idiot. The show’s classism shows a little, as it tries to imagine his motivations dramatically and sympathetically while syncing with some historical realities. The stuff with his wife, Elizabeth MacLennan, for instance, seems like it’s there to be a control. Because otherwise it’s just Warwick trying to chew on scenery and slobbering on it instead. It’s uncomfortably bad to see. But then the show will have some bad reveal on Warwick’s past and you’ll get sympathetic—to the historical figure—again; a moment or two later, Warwick will ruin even that detached sympathy.

He’s real bad.

And I’m not sure anyone told him he was supposed to be bi. Like, the other guys in the scenes know they’re supposed to be gay, but Warwick never seems to get it. It’s very, very strange.

But it’s just one episode, right? And I said, no matter what happens, the comedies of “In the Shadow of the Tower” cement the series.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e09 – Do the Sheep Sin?

Continuing the hit streak is this episode, Do the Sheep Sin?, which has King James Maxwell dealing with a protest march. He’s been taxing the hell out of the poor, albeit somewhat unintentionally (he thought he was taxing the rich, they just put it on to the poor), and the poor decide they’re going to march on London to plead relief. “Tower”’s 1972 shows a little as the suffering peasants plead with their betters, only for their betters to give them pointless advice and the show’s middle class values are firmly with the betters telling the poor to get over it. They’re not even telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps—there’s no Calvinism yet—they just tell them to suffer.

Suffer so Maxwell can wage a war on the latest pretender to his throne, Richard Warwick. Warwick, playing a guy named Perkin Warbeck, is barely in the episode. And there’s a confusing bit about protest leader John Castle, who’s phenomenal, sending secret messages—unless I missed one, and I don’t think I did—there are actually two secret messages while the viewer is left thinking a single secret message was delivered. It’s a messy moment in the script, which is otherwise dead-on. Except, of course, the utterly lack of humanity when it comes to Maxwell’s take on the poor. Was medieval royalty so inhumane as history—even positive history—presents them? Bunch of pricks.

Anyway. So long as the protest doesn’t have arms, it’s not considered a revolt or whatever. So much of the episode is Maxwell sitting around, waiting for the protest, while Castle is drumming up drama. He’s got a hero of the people figure, John Woodvine, making the protest seem kosher, while Castle’s been hoarding weapons for the first chance to take things up a notch. Castle’s ambitions are rather interesting as he’s able to recognize actual injustice and exploit it to manipulate the peasants. He’s the son of a noble, natch, and noble daddy David Garth is actually the one who narcs on Castle to the king. The king investigates, the peasants take up arms, now it’s able minimizing the public image damage.

It’s good. It starts better than it finishes, but it’s good. The script, by Anthea Browne-Wilkinson and John Gould, also has a bit of a determinism problem. The only reason Maxwell is able to drum up trouble in the protest is because Castle’s corrupt. If Castle weren’t corrupt, which Maxwell has no idea about, the investigation is just information gathering, the protest wouldn’t have turned into rebellion. What was Maxwell going to do then? Browne-Wilkinson and Gould don’t even suggest Maxwell would consider that possibility, over ten thousand peasants asking for an audience with their king.

It’s a missed opportunity and a dodgy move.

But otherwise, a rather strong episode, which is good; it’s Maxwell’s biggest part in the story in quite a while.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e08 – The Princely Gift

I can’t say if this episode, The Princely Gift, is better than the previous episode, which was the comedy. Gift is about a Venetian navigator, played by Londoner Derek Smith with an accent you’d think was a little strong even in 1972. He’s working with these three businessmen from Bristol who want to do an exploration themselves, not for science and knowledge, but for profit. Smith is along for the ride, because he doesn’t have the experience to get support in Venice. He’s a novice navigator.

So maybe a third of the episode is Smith’s life in England, with his wife (Katharine Blake) and sons in tow. Blake wants to go back to Venice, especially if it means Smith doesn’t get to go on his voyage. She worries about him. Blake and Smith’s marriage chemistry is so good it gets past him being British and her being South African. In 1972. Ew. But they’re both amazing. Blake’s performance is (unfortunately since we’re on episode eight) easily the female performance on the show so far and maybe even the best performance overall. She’s really, really good.

Another third involves the Bristol businessmen, which is done for humor. They’re bumbling Brits. Blake mocks them openly. It’s funny. That comedy feel again, with an entirely different subject, cast, director, and writers. “Shadow of the Tower,” in two episodes, has completely refined its potential. This episode also involves light. Fake light, sure, but light. Light gives the show a rather inviting feel. Very good direction from Keith Williams. Particularly excellent use of music too, possibly by Herbert Chappell (who’s the only credited composer and for the title music).

The last third (and basically the last third of the episode too) involves King James Maxwell and Derek once the petition for a voyage gets all the way up the ladder. You’ve got this earthy, passionate Venetian and this British monarch who might be in tights and definitely has a stick up his ass, but they’re both excited about the world and about knowledge. It’s awesome. If history was actually two percent as cool as the scene, it’d be a good historical moment.

“Shadow of the Tower” really has gotten extraordinarily good all of a sudden. Because it’s still expository—it’s still basically just a history lesson—just an elegantly, artfully executed one.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e07 – A Fly in the Ointment

“In the Shadow of the Tower” has been getting really good, but it hasn’t done anything like A Fly in the Ointment in the ointment before. When I grokked the format—different directors, different writers, maybe not everything from King James Maxwell’s perspective (though tellingly zilch so far from Queen Norma West’s perspective), I was kind of hopeful, kind of apprehensive. The show’s from 1972; it’s had almost fifty years to get discovered and rediscovered and I’d never heard of it.

Because Ointment delivers on all the potential of the concept, more than I’d ever imagined; Ointment is a comedy episode. It makes fun of British people, it makes fun of them being pompous and ignorant, it makes fun of them so stuck-up compared to Europeans, it makes fun of them being lazy rich. It’s freaking awesome. And it’s got the Major from “Fawlty Towers” (Ballard Berkeley) playing… a fifteenth century version of the Major. It’s awesome.

And it’s a lot more open than the show’s ever been before. They’re not in dreary England, the episode takes place in Rome and other sunny places. Moira Armstrong’s direction is fantastic. Julian Mitchell’s script is just the right amount sarcastic humor, right amount straight humor, right amount exposition. And because of the now anthology style of the show, you could potentially watch it separate from everything else. Maxwell shows up, but basically for a cameo. It’s all about the guest stars.

There’s John Welsh as this English nobleman who’s plotting against Maxwell, forced to collaborate with Eastern Mediterranean types with their loose morals and sexy art. He’s a rich idiot, who everyone entertains because he’s a rich idiot. In his entourage (of conspirators), there’s also Christopher Sandford as his randy lovestuck dandy nephew who’s hanging around for the old man’s money and drinking and whoring while he waits, Donald Eccles is an archdeacon who’s also an idiot and in the group, and finally there’s Peter Bowles, who starts real quiet and ends up giving the second best performance in an episode of outstanding performances.

Thanks to Ointment, no matter what else “Tower” does, it’s under-regarded. It’s amazing.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e06 – The White Hart

The episode starts with guys conspiring to overthrow Henry VII (Robert Maxwell) with the help of foreign money and a pretender king… in other words, “In the Shadow of the Tower” feels like itself again. If itself again means it feels more like the first three episodes than the two before this episode. It’s actually not a return to that original form, even if some of the same pieces are in play. For example, Queen Norma West returns, just with zilch to do. She’s scenery in Marigold Sharman’s scenes, something for Sharman to talk off.

The main story—and where the episode gets very different from anything coming before, especially the episodes with the same type of stakes—is about Sir William Stanley, who’s almost definitely a traitor of some sort. A conspiring one. Maxwell’s on to him, slowly but surely because Maxwell’s too trusting—the scene where Maxwell tears Stanley (John Franklyn-Robbins) down is fantastic. It’s just a shame Franklyn-Robbins isn’t any good. He’s very close to actively bad, hurting the many scenes he’s in this episode.

So Franklyn-Robbins is Sharman’s brother-in-law and Sharman is Maxwell’s mother and the King’s mother doesn’t want her in-law executed or even threatened with execution for treason. Maxwell doesn’t agree with her assessment of the situation, which doesn’t lead to a rift, just an oft-repeated exposition dump about Maxwell’s responsibilities as king.

It should be a great episode. If Franklyn-Robbins were any good, it’d be a great episode. Instead it’s just pretty good, with John Elliot’s script sometimes a little slow but a really good performance from Maxwell this time out. Even though the scripts aren’t giving Maxwell explicit character development, his character is developing through the performance as the series progresses. There’s definitely a “don’t question the Tudor king” attitude about the show, which is kind of weird but then the English have bought into the idea of not questioning their history just like the rest of Western civilization so maybe it’s not.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e05 – The Serpent and the Comforter

This episode is peculiar. It has a new writer, new director, same production design, same King (James Maxwell), but in this episode, Maxwell’s end credit is just as “The King,” not “King Henry VII.” Because it doesn’t matter who he is. He doesn’t need to be the king. He could just as easily be Pontius Pilate. If there is a Jesus homage, it’s more functional than anything else, like writer Hugh Whitemore wanted the framework but not too many of the details. So I guess Maxwell couldn’t just as easily be Pontius Pilate.

David Bowie is Pontius Pilate. And Maxwell is no David Bowie. And David Bowie is no James Maxwell.


The episode’s about Maxwell getting interested in this condemned heretic, played by Peter Jeffrey. Unbeknownst to Maxwell, one of the soldiers guarding Jeffrey also gets interested. David Ashton plays the young soldier. Ashton doesn’t understand what heresy means while Maxwell is just looking for a debate. He’s a privileged, bored White man with a wife and baby at home; of course he wants to debate some guy who’s condemned to death.

It’s been very interesting to see how Catholic the English are in the “Tower” era. Hearing Maxwell harp on about the greatness of the Catholic Church is strange, almost disconcerting. Though that reaction’s probably a combination of history major and BBC-watcher, your mileage may vary.

So Maxwell, defender of the Catholic faith, debates Jeffrey, who just wants to go back to Jesus’s teachings from the Bible and knock it off with all the corrupt Church stuff. Maxwell “wins” the debate by dismissing Jeffrey’s reliance on empirical evidence; of course it doesn’t make senes if you see it, God made it that way not to make sense so you wouldn’t try to figure it out.

But the real emotion comes with Jeffrey and Ashton. See, Ashton’s got an impressionable young mind and a good heart and he bonds with Jeffrey, which does Jeffrey some good, but also not.

There’s an unfortunate voice over sequence but it’s the early seventies so it can be forgiven. Nothing really matters since Jeffrey can act through anything. He’s phenomenal, spell-binding, whatever. You hang on every word. It’s a heck of a downer but a damned good one.

The Shadow of the Tower s01e04 – The Crowning of Apes

This episode has a different director, Prudence Fitzgerald, and a different writer, Brian Rawlinson, than the first three episodes, which explains a lot of the stylistic differences. Rawlinson being a guy might also explain why Henry (James Maxwell) is cruel in a very different way than he ever has been before. It’s like Rawlinson can’t bring himself to make Henry appear kind to children twice in one episode; speaking of being kind to children, we’ve never seen Henry’s son. Not to mention the Queen not getting an appearance in this episode either.

Though it’s not a very ladylike episode; it’s all about the traitor James Laurenson going over and teaming up with—well, some other people. They’re in Ireland, they hate the Tudors. It’s War of the Roses stuff, Whites, and Reds. Like I said, I didn’t do this era of English history; I glazed over with it during “Game of Thrones” too. So Laurenson’s got this pretender king, an annoying tween, and he’s drummed up enough money for German mercenaries and the Irish are with him and they’re going to invade and take out Henry and company.

Here’s the thing. “The Shadow of the Tower”’s first episode is all about how Henry invaded and spanked Laurenson and company real bad and Henry became king. So these conspirators think they’re all of a sudden going to out medieval battle the guy who spanked them so severely a few years before. They’re idiots. History: entitled, mediocre White men have always been a problem. I mean, I’ve got four blogs, just look at me.

Anyway, once you realize—about a third of the way into the episode—how these guys are basically just dopes, it’s hard to get interested in their stupid plotting. Cobra Commander had better plans. Meanwhile, Henry and his guys are just freaking out about getting enough troops together because they’re broke. There’s some good stuff with Hugh Sullivan wanting to get to lead a company or whatever it’s called in the actual battle instead of hanging out in safety. It goes to informing Maxwell’s Henry rather well. A lot of the episode gives Maxwell solid work, actually, just not that last moment. There’s a good last section, after the battle, when Henry brings in all the traitors and assigns fates. Then it gets deep, then it gets bad. A kind of goofy, cruel bad, which doesn’t really invalidate anything but it does jar.

But, overall, a good episode. Definitely better than the previous one.

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