Wrote A Hit Play
by ETHAN PETERSON
creator Charlotte Jones
The Halcyon (of ITV's spring series The Halcyon) is a hotel somewhere in London, I can't say precisely where. It has one Jew, one black man, one Indian fellow. It has one gay, several unmarried women, one German, one Austrian, one American. It really has everything when you think about it. It even has the singular crush of Max Fischer, one Olivia Williams:
Watching Wes Anderson's disturbing 1998 film Rushmore is now an altered experience in several ways. A close friend of mine suggested that Anderson should do a cut of the film without Bill Murray, in the style of Garfield Minus Garfield. After all, Fischer's relationship with his older patron is sort of besides the point. It is not the real reason he cannot consummate a romantic relationship with his teacher. The real reason is that she is not a very good or interesting person. Max's young love seems impossible in retrospect.
So does the Second World War. Events at the Halcyon Hotel are often interrupted by air raid sirens, but everyone involved tries to go on having a good time. Creator Charlotte Jones goes to substantial pains to make this Downton Abbey-clone less innocent overall. The action of the war is serious and severe, and many lose their lives.
Lady Hamilton (Olivia Williams) is an awful crone whose husband cheated on her with an anti-Semitic German woman. After he dies, Ms. Hamilton takes over the hotel with her two sons, the gay Toby (Edward Bluemel) and Freddie (Jamie Blackley), who is carrying on an elaborate love affair with the assistant manager of his hotel, a woman named Emma (Hermione Corfield). Lady Hamilton is a serious villainness for most of the show, which does not really put Rosemary Cross/Olivia Williams' extensive charm to good use.
Coming from the stage, Charlotte Jones is very deft at patterns of speech, and it is a relief not to hear Julian Fellowes' distinctive period pitter-patter. At times the denizens of The Halcyon talk like the twentieth-century actors they actually are, but this kind of verging on melodrama is actually a welcome relief. It is tedious to watch reserved people all the time.
Unfortunately, the minority characters of the Halcyon are employed purely to make their British betters look more virtuous, a clever retcon of history. The Halcyon's manager, Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh), announces that France has fallen to the Germans and all the British people joke about how they'll get terrible sauerkraut there. Soon the severity of the war awakens a collective sense of self-preservation, but all-in-all, this took far too long. Six million Jews died while the U.S. and England were content to joke around.
Despite its rather ragtag plot and character work, Jones has selected an impressive cast of performers who keep her lively dialogue humming. It is difficult to grow bored of watching The Halcyon given the seventeen plotlines occuring at any one time. At times Jones' substantial monologues and speeches become seriously hokey, but as long as you are celebrating England, you may as well do it with a lecture and a song.
Still, it is hard not to watch all these British stories and think of the six million. There is one Jew in the cast, and he is a cook. British anti-Semitism never makes more than a token appearance. At the Halcyon, as on Noah's Ark, diversity is tolerated as long as no one minority becomes a majority. Even the Nazis here are not so bad - like Hitler, who prized British society and customs, they are respectful of the one place they never seemed keen to conquer.
The simple fact of being British overcomes a lot, and The Halcyon restates this again and again. Such nationalism is timely and uncomplicated, like Max Fischer's love for this chain-smoking old woman.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.