Is it chutzpah, desperation or total insanity? I don’t know, but either way, ITV has made a drama about Cary Grant, in which some of the biggest movie stars who ever lived (Doris Day, Grace Kelly, Mae West) all appear, played by actors who not only look nothing like them, but who come with roughly 2 per cent of their quicksilver charisma.
In a way, it’s almost charming: as if one were paying a visit to some moth-eaten wax museum. Except you can tour a seaside waxworks in 15 minutes, and cheer yourself up afterwards on the helter-skelter. This lasts four hours, and not an amusement arcade in sight.
I’d love to have heard the chat when Jason Isaacs, who plays Grant, was offered the part. How did he respond to the notion of playing the most handsome, the most dashing, the most urbane of actors? The star of Bringing Up Baby and North by Northwest, for God’s sake? But perhaps all we need to know is that he accepted, a decision he may, or may not, have had cause to regret once hair and make-up began hosing him with self-tan. Grant famously liked to sunbathe; poolside, he kept a reflector beneath his chin, the better to send the rays to his face. But there’s a world of difference between a California tan and one from a bottle. Isaacs looks like he’s been marinated in cumin: stick him in the oven, and eat him with naan bread and mango chutney.
Archie (so-called because Grant was born Archie Leach) has spurted from the frantic pen of the always busy Jeff Pope, whose Jimmy Savile drama, The Reckoning, we discussed here mere minutes ago. Based on a memoir by Grant’s fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, who (bizarrely) is also its executive producer – does this explain why the actor who plays her, Laura Aikman, is the only doppelgänger present? – his series is preoccupied with the idea of reinvention, and of what it might cost a man psychologically.
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This is, of course, an excellent premise. No writer, no human being, could fail to be transfixed by the knowledge that Grant, who was born in poverty in Bristol in 1904, believed his mother was dead for 25 years – until, that is, his estranged father finally confessed to his (by now internationally famous) son that she was, in fact, very much alive, and still in the asylum to which he’d had her committed. But somehow, Pope contrives to lose all the horror and sorrow of this. Cycling back and forth through the decades – here is Grant as a boy, and here he is as an exhausted old man – his script, by doing too much, does very little.
What makes it worse is that the scenes in which the actor returns to Bristol to see his mother, Elsie (Harriet Walter), give you a sense of what the series might have been had Pope and/or ITV had the courage to eschew Hollywood in the Sixties, the period and place in which most of the action is set and whose high glamour they cannot possibly hope to capture. (The whole thing, I read, was filmed in a Merseyside warehouse.) In these moments, only mother and son on screen, the agony and the incongruity lie thicker than any pan-stick. There’s a numbing bathos in the speed with which we are whizzed back to the palm trees, the golf buggies, and Jason Watkins (who plays, with utmost unconvincingness, Grant’s agent).
Grant got his start in vaudeville as a “tumbler” in a troupe that toured America (he never left). The talkies were then only just beginning. So, yes, it’s amazing to think of him swanning around in shades with Sophia Loren – and that’s even before you consider his painful concealments, his ruthlessly divided self.
But does Pope really need to keep going over this in fluorescent pen? “We’re all fakes in this town, aren’t we?” notes Alfred Hitchcock, as Grant arrives at one of the director’s notoriously puckish dinner parties (the food is a lurid shade of blue). “A boy from Bristol and a fake princess,” says Grace Kelly, when she swings by his place for a heart-to-heart.
At one point – fromage alert – the young Grant even passes his future adult self in the street. Oh dear. Personally, I think there are enough neon lights in Hollywood already without Pope switching on several more.
ITVX; full series available on catch-up
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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style