Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw
BBC DVD
(2006)

Paired up on disc five of the George Bernard Shaw Collection with Androcles and the Lion is Pygmalion. This 1973 broadcast is unlikely to prove the finest of the set, with overacting that harks back to an earlier age.

This is the story of a grubby, common Covent Garden girl taken up by a professor who believes that he can turn her into a perfect imitation of a society debutante in just six months. This allows for both a great deal of comedy and also commentary on a society that contains great extremes of wealth and poverty.

James Villiers makes Professor Henry Higgins into a rather unpleasant snob who today might be regarded as rather sinister with his attitude towards the lower classes whom he seems to regard as little better than animals, and rather less lovable. He is aided and abetted by Ronald Fraser playing a well-spoken, retired colonel.

The real power behind the throne in the Higgins household though, is Angela Baddeley's Mrs Pearce. She is the kind of housekeeper who could control any supposed master. This kindly old soul takes Eliza under her wing and ensures they she receives good treatment while living under the same roof as these two rather unsavoury, or at least eccentric, gentlemen.

The joy however is to see a young Lynn Redgrave playing Eliza Doolittle, probably now better known to most as the heroine of the musical version, My Fair Lady.

Miss Redgrave, whose father played Henry Higgins in an audio version in which she also starred as his protégée, is amusing enough as the coarse flower girl, convincing as the would-be Duchess and extremely funny on her first engagement in company where diction is perfect but grammar lacking.

The weakness of this production lies in the caricatures that far too many actors make of their parts. In particular, Emrys James playing Eliza's dustman father acts cockney, rather than in any way suggesting that he was actually born anywhere near London, let alone the sound of Bow Bells.

The play only really peaks in the last half hour when Eliza realises that her time in the Professor's charge is almost up. By then, she is a least a little in love with him, not to mention the alternative life that she has had a glimpse of. Her temper, given full rein by Miss Redgrave, gets the better of the young almost-lady as she finally tells her mentor in no uncertain terms what she thinks of him.

Those who have been to the Globe to see the current Antony and Cleopatra may also recognise a very young Nicholas Jones this time playing upper-class twit Freddie rather than a noble Roman.

Pygmalion is a gently entertaining play with enough comedy during the 1¾ hours of this BBC version to make it worth watching. However, George Cukor's 1964 musical film version (under the title of My Fair Lady) starring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Stanley Holloway showing Mr James how his character should have been played, might be a far better bet for a single disc acquisition.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher