This week on PBS, Mystery! will begin its 11th season with one of the best mini-series it has ever presented, Mother Love, driven and dominated by a career-high performance by the excellent English actress Diana Rigg.
Rigg has been successful in both commercial television, notably as leather-clad adventuress Emma Peel in the fondly remembered The Avengers series in the 1960s, and on the rarefied heights of artistic TV, as when she played Goneril in King Lear in 1984, the last major Shakespearean role undertaken by the immortal Laurence Olivier. But the role of Helena Vesey in Mother Love is her masterpiece, a thoroughly trained and highly experienced actress here operating at the top of her power in a role that affords outlet for the expression of every major emotion.
Mother Love, a four-hour fictional mini-series airing in three weekly installments, will begin at 9 p.m. Friday on WNJS (Channel 23) and WNJT (Channel 52). In another example of the questionable judgment that often warps the schedule oh WHYY, Channel 12 has chosen to delay the premiere of Mother Love until Nov. 1. On WLVT (Channel 39), it will start Thursday at 9 p.m.
Rigg performs a dual role here, for she is the regular host of Mystery!, a role she inherited from Vincent Price, as well as the star of Mother Love. She takes note of that only briefly, tonight referring to Helena as "a fascinating character - a challenging role that's impossible for an actress to turn down."
Mother Love makes Mommie Dearest look as affectionate as Mother Goose. Any viewer prone to griping about his or her mother should watch Mother Love before wailing again.
Helena Batt was a singing star onstage in England when she met and married Alex Vesey, a world renowned orchestra conductor, portrayed by David McCallum. Their marriage produced a son, Kit Vesey, played by James Wilby, but almost nothing else, since Alex soon left Helena and married a photographer named Ruth, portrayed by ilsa Blair.
To say that Helena never forgave Alex is like saying that Israel doubts the sincerity of Yasir Arafat. As her son matures into boyhood, she forbids him to ever see his father.
The plot of Mother Love pivots on the premise that Kit meets his father and then maintains regular contact with him, all the while lying to his mother about this relationship. She is crazed in her bitterness, he is deep in duplicity, and the mini-series winds out from there with the inevitability of Greek tragedy.
Kit meets and marries Angela, portrayed by Fiona Gillies, who plays a vital role in this mini-series by baring her breasts in each of the first three hours. Just as cable TV in this country uses obscene comedy as an attention-getting device, so does British-produced TV dramas like Mother Love employ occasional nudity as an overseas sales attraction.
Although Angela is disinclined toward lying, Kit persuades her to join him in deceipt, because he's afraid his mother will commit suicide if she ever finds out that he is associating with his father. He assumes that such a revelation would unhinge his mother, because Helena is obviously operating on the far edge of human behavior.
In the hands of a lesser actress than Rigg, the mad role of Helena would probably soon dissolve into scenery-chewing melodrama. But Rigg brings you right inside the crazed skull of this character, and there is actually a scene near the end where you may sympathize with helena, so consumed is she by her lifelong fixation on her son.
One of the reasons that British drama is usually better than American drama is that there seems to be a larger pool of skilled actors in England to play minor roles. In Mother Love, watch for Danuta, an art-gallery owner, seductively played by Liliana Komorowska, and Helena's cousin, George Batt, a bumbler touchingly defined by James Grout.
But if you watch Mother Love, the heavy probability is that, in the comparatively brief sequences when Rigg is not on camera, you'll hardly be able to wait for her to reappear. Smothering in her love of Kit, sly in her deception of Angela, virulent in her hatred of Alex, always totally focused in her monomania, Helena is chilling, fascinating, magnetic in compelling viewer attention.
Mother Love is not like the usual Mystery! mystery, because the attention here is not really devoted to solving a crime. You'll learn very soon that Helena is evil. The main question is whether she will discover her son's secret, and what she might do in reaction. You can rule out for forgiveness, since Helena's philosophy isL "Disloyalty is the most dreadful of crimes. That's why it deserves the severest punishment.
The first half of Mother Love is better than the last half, in part because the average physician would probably tell you that the shocking climax of the show is medically very unlikely. But by that time, Rigg will probably have you so reeled in that you'll willingly suspend belief just to follow Helena all the way to the end of her twisted trail.
Mother Love is a horrific character study. The main character is as evil as Lady Macbeth. Rigg, who knows Shakespearean characters well, by the force of her acting lifts Helena to a level that even the Bard himself might have admired. After all, in his salad days he created more than one woman as vicious as she.