Unlucky in Love: BBC's Anna Karenina Comes to DVD

By , Contributor

Acorn/RLJ Entertainment

As humans, we sometimes want what we do not or cannot have. In the case of Anna Karenina, a Russian aristocrat/socialite and the lead character in Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, she desperately wants to be romanced and loved, but, tragically, ends up looking in all the wrong places. Originally published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger, Tolstoy’s novel was later made into 13 feature films as well as a 1985 made-for-TV movie and 2000 TV miniseries.

In 1976, the BBC and Time-Life adapted Anna Karenina into a ten-part miniseries. This Emmy nominee for Outstanding Limited Series aired two years later in the States on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, and just last week was released on DVD by Acorn/RLJ Entertainment. Written and produced by Donald Wilson (The Forsythe Saga, The First Churchills), this version of Tolstoy’s novel stars Nicola Pagett. She is best known by longtime Masterpiece fans as Elizabeth Bellamy, James’ (Simon Williams) beautiful suffragist sister in the original Upstairs, Downstairs. That role ended after the show’s first season when Elizabeth sailed to America to start a new life for herself, a plot twist that was at Pagett’s request.

“I went home one day,” she noted in a 1978 PBS interview, “and worked out what else could happen to Elizabeth, and I decided nothing. So I would probably end up in scenes saying, ‘Oh, there you are, James,' and I didn’t want that.”

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Set in Imperial Russia in the 1870s, Anna Karenina unfolds during a period of transition for the country; the serfs had been freed, revolutionary movements were growing stronger, while social mores were becoming more lax. In the Anna character, Tolstoy created a heroine that reflected those times. A noblewoman, she has been trapped in a loveless marriage to Alexei Karenin (Eric Porter, who played Soames Forsythe in The Forsythe Saga), a leading politician as well as a thoroughly honest businessman who is 20 years his wife’s senior.

When the series opens, Anna comes to Moscow to help mend her brother’s marriage. Soon after arriving, she meets the handsome and dashing Count Alexei Vronsky (Stuart Wilson, The Strauss Family), with whom she begins a very public, and ultimately, a very tragic love affair. “I feel like a starving man when someone gives him food,” is the way Anna describes her feelings towards him.

Pagett was working onstage in a 1976 London revival of Gaslight when she first heard that she was being considered for the role of Anna. The TV series had initially been proposed to BBC by the late Italian producer Carlo Ponti as a vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren, and, funnily enough, Pagett was not the BBC’s first choice for the role. That was Diana Rigg (The Avengers), who left the project after becoming dissatisfied with the script.

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Having already committed to Gaslight, Pagett could not accept the Anna role. Luckily for her, production on Anna Karenina was postponed for a few months. When it was revived in the summer of 1976, writer/producer Donald Wilson, among others, came to lunch at Pagett’s home in the London suburb of Mortlake to see if she was still interested in the part. In a 1978 interview with arts reporter Ralph Tyler, the actress recalled, “It was a beautiful hot day. I made an enormous Greek salad and nobody was hungry. We sat in the garden drinking wine and that’s when they asked me whether I’d like to play the role.”

Long before this BBC production was ever mounted, Anna had been played on the big screen by legendary Hollywood actresses Vivien Leigh and Greta Garbo. Back then, Pagett had never seen either versions of the role, not wanting to be influenced or intimated by either actress’ performance. “I’m so unlike them,” she declared in the same interview with Tyler.

“Not like Miss Leigh?” he asked.

Pagett replied, “There’s nothing remotely ethereal or delicate about me. I’m sort of peasant stock. Words won’t blow me off my feet. I’m not fragile — not that sort of lady.” As for Miss Garbo, she gasped, “I can’t compete with Garbo.”

Karenina1.jpgAlong with Pagett, Porter and Wilson, Anna Karenina also stars Norma Streader (Poldark) as Varya, Vronsky’s sister-in-law; Davyd Harries (Cousin Bette) as Anna’s beloved brother Prince Stepan Oblonsky; Carole Nimmons (House of Elliot) as Stepan’s wife Dolly; Caroline Langrishe (Lovejoy) as Dolly’s sister Kitty; and Robert Swann (Sense and Sensibility) as Kitty’s husband Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrich Levin. 

Complementing all this star power are the show’s lavish production values. In an effort to capture Tolstoy’s Russia onscreen, Anna Karenina was filmed in England as well as on location in Budapest and the Hungarian countryside. Donald Wilson’s script even caught the attention of Soviet filmmakers, who invited Anna Karenina executive producer Ken Riddington to stay in the Hotel de l’Europe, the very hotel Anna and Vronsky went to on their return to St. Petersburg.

In a 1978 TV Guide article by Robert Musel, the show’s costume designer, Joan Ellacott, talked about her involvement in the production. After reading Tolstoy’s novel, she spent three days at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum studying a variety of rare books, including a Russian magazine from the 1870s packed with engravings of people from every level of society. “I noted how servants, footmen and flunkies dressed,” she said,” and got excellent stuff on wet nurses in the traditional costume with the halo-like headdresses called kokochnik that they wore when working for the aristocracy.”

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Uniform expert Ken Tew was responsible for authenticating the Russian military uniforms. Using his own source material, he reproduced the magnificent garb that a Russian general, who, over a century ago, was also colonel-in-chief of a regiment in St. Petersburg, would wear to the opera. Set designer Derek Dodd had the advantage of prior travel in Russia along with his work experience on a TV dramatization of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed to call upon when recreating the various homes as well as other locales seen in the series. “The one big problem was to find the kind of big house the aristocracy would have lived in at the time,” he was quoted as saying in the same TV Guide article. After an exhaustive search they found just what they were looking for, back in Britain, no less, where a Victorian had built that exact type of family dwelling in the Russian style.

Given her marriage to Karenin and subsequent ill-fated, self-destructive affair with Vronsky, some might see Anna as a sympathetic character. Pagett, however, had her doubts. “She’s difficult and self-indulgent,” said the actress in Ralph Tyler’s article. “If she had been grown up and been a little bit calm—given her lover, Vronsky, what he wanted—things would have worked out. For him, their love had gone through its initial manic stage and he was ready to settle down, but she provokes him and provokes him until she drives him away and then accuses him of leaving her. She’s sort of a fool, but an endearing fool.

“What I got from the book,” added Pagett, “was that she didn’t want to be a wife. She wanted to be a mistress. Men leave their wives, not their mistresses. She also felt guilty for what she did to her husband, Karenin, and wanted to be punished. Society snubs her, but she doesn’t think that is enough punishment.”

Anna Karenina can be ordered at AcornOnline. Please note, all photos copyright of the BBC.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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