Helena Pratt is as nasty a bit of baggage as you are likely to find on television this year, and Diana Rigg brings her to lip-smackingly vicious life in the BBC's "Mother Love." The three-part, four-hour presentation opens the 11th season of public television's "Mystery," tonight at 8 on Channel 13 and at 9 on Channels 21 and 49. As Ms. Rigg, who also happens to be the regular "Mystery" host, notes in her introduction, "Mother Love" is not the standard whodunit usually featured on the series. It is a psychological thriller, offering, she adds pointedly, "a challenging role that's impossible for an actress to turn down."
This evening's two-hour installment wastes little time establishing Helena's bad-seed credentials. It opens with a childhood scene, done in black and white, in which little Helena learns that her best school chum has gone to another girl's birthday party. Helena was not invited. Treachery! Disloyalty! These are the most dreadful of crimes, Helena will tell us again and again, and they deserve the severest punishment. Subsequent scattered flashbacks will show little Helena painstakingly preparing a poisonous tart for her wayward chum.
Years later, Helena marries Alex Vesey (David McCallum), a famous conductor. The marriage is a disaster, ending after two years, when Alex leaves Helena for Ruth (Ilsa Blair), a professional photographer. The embittered Helena then focuses her entire life on Kit (James Wilby), her son, who is forbidden to see his father or, indeed, even mention his name. As the story proper begins, Kit, a fledgling lawyer, falls in love with Angela (Fiona Gillies). Helena, of course, is wary but resigned to her son's marriage as long as she can retain a tight grasp on his life. What she doesn't know is that Kit has for years been seeing his father in secret and is very close to him and his new family.
In most psychological thrillers, there is at least one detail that requires an especially demanding leap of faith. In "Mother Love" this involves the character of Angela, who, despite being aware of Helena's bizarre ways, decides to stick with Kit, not only marrying him but also getting trapped in the elaborate web of lies he uses to keep his mother pacified. Angela seems much too intelligent a woman to step into that quagmire.
Nevertheless, the marriage proceeds, children are born and Helena does her damnedest to worm her way into the lives of "my new family." On the fringes is George (James Grout), a gentle old souse who is Helena's cousin and friend. Like Kit and Angela, George is also a dear friend of Alex Vesey and his family. It is only a matter of time, of course, before the intensely vigilant Helena discovers unmistakable signs of treachery and disloyalty seeping into her life, and no one is safe from her murderous wrath.
Adapted by Andrew Davies from a novel by Domini Taylor, one of several pseudonyms used by a writer perhaps best known as Ivor Drummond ("The Frog in the Moonflower"), and directed by Simon Langton, "Mother Love" is a compelling little tale of psychotic obsession and cunning revenge. The performances are splendidly on target, even when the going gets sticky. As Kit and Angela, for instance, Mr. Wilby and Ms. Gillies are required to spend an inordinate amount of time together in bathroom tubs playing with wind-up toys.
But this is Ms. Rigg's show, and she wrings the most from it, her hair pulled severely back from her forehead, her features fixed in a subtly menacing mask of utter compassion and understanding. Bent on retribution, even her voice becomes a venomous instrument as she locks into tones of ever-so-proper British reasonableness. "Oh, I don't know anything about art," the master artificer says unctuously. "I don't even know what I like." You bet, Helena darling. This is old-fashioned melodramatic villainy, the kind that Judith Anderson or Gale Sondergaard once made memorable. Not flinching for a second, Ms. Rigg skewers her prey superbly.
Mystery Mother Love
Directed by Simon Langton; written by Andrew Davies, based on a book by Domini Taylor; photography, Nigel Walters; script editor, Devora Pope; costumes by Dorinda Rea; music by Patrick Gowers; designer, Ken Ledsham; produced by Ken Riddington.
Tonight at 8 P.M. on Channel 13 and at 9 P.M. on Channels 21 and 49.
Helena . . . Diana Rigg
Kit . . . James Wilby
Alex . . . David McCallum
Ruth . . . Ilsa Blair
George . . . James Grout