Russell Baker on The Cazalets
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as selected commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5
The Cazalets | Episode 1
Tonight we meet three generations of the Cazalet family. It is a big family and, as families go, a happy family. Every happy family, of course -- despite what Tolstoy says -- is also unhappy in its own way, as the Cazalets will prove before our series is ended. These shows are based on a huge and gloriously detailed novel called The Cazalet Chronicle by the contemporary English writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Miss Howard is well known in England as the author of a dozen highly regarded books. She was once married to another prolific British writer -- Kingsley Amis.
Let's start with a thumbnail sketch of the Cazalet family tree. The senior generation -- father and mother -- are known by family nicknames. He is always called "the Brig," she, "the Duchy."
They have four grown children, all of whom you'll meet as the story unfolds.
The Cazalets are in the timber trade, and it supports them in high style: servants, London town houses, private schooling, and, most important, a big country estate in Sussex near the English Channel, where the whole family spends summers together and where most of the family high drama takes place.
As we begin it is the summer of 1937, and three generations of Cazalets are about to make their annual move to the country. First of five episodes, The Cazalets.
That was the real voice of Neville Chamberlain we heard on the radio tonight, promising "peace in our time."
He's not much remembered nowadays. But for years Chamberlain and his umbrella symbolized the so-called "appeasement policy" toward Adolf Hitler. Appeasement meant giving Hitler almost anything he wanted, if it would keep the peace.
In 1938, what Hitler wanted was Czechoslovakia. Britain and France were pledged to defend it against attack, but both dreaded war more than they valued Czech freedom. So Chamberlain did something absolutely extraordinary for a British prime minister: He flew several times to Munich to talk with Hitler. His eagerness to bargain left Hitler persuaded that Chamberlain would not fight.
In their final meeting, Chamberlain gave Hitler Czechoslovakia, and Hitler gave Chamberlain a signed piece of paper promising to be a good fellow in the future.
What we heard tonight was recorded when Chamberlain came back from his final visit to Munich, saying he brought "peace with honor -- peace in our time"
Well, it's easy now to condemn Chamberlain's surrender, but in 1938 it was highly popular in England, as the Cazalets' celebration suggests.
Eleven months later, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
The Cazalets | Episode 2
It's September 1939. The German army is invading Poland, and war is inevitable. London railroad stations are filled with city children being moved to the country.
Our story is The Cazalets, based on Elizabeth Jane Howard's multi-volume novel. Big books about big families are a tradition of British fiction.
Miss Howard's tale of the Cazalets is reminiscent of works like The Forsyte Saga or, in television form, Upstairs, Downstairs.
The story is centered in the family's country estate, where most of them are spending the summer. Edward Cazalet is an exception. He spends most of the week in town working in the family business and enjoying a love affair with another man's wife.
Last time we saw his own wife, faithful and thoroughly bored Villy, deciding to go through with an unwanted pregnancy.
Rupert's wife Zoë had also become pregnant after a wild night with her mother's doctor, and while Rupert happily assumed he was the father, Zoë seemed sure he wasn't.
The problem died with the newborn baby shortly after its birth.
When we resume tonight, the Cazalets are headquartered in Sussex, nine miles from the English Channel, making blackout curtains and otherwise bracing for war.
Second episode, The Cazalets.
Although war was declared in 1939, there was no fighting in France for the next eight months, and people began calling it the "phony war."
All that changed swiftly in the spring of 1940, when the German army struck with terrifying efficiency and rolled across Belgium, Holland, and France in six weeks.
The British Army and a hundred thousand French troops were trapped at Dunkirk on the English Channel and were saved from destruction by one of history's great rescues.
Four hundred thousand men were carried back to England by the British Navy and heroic volunteers like Edward who took a fleet of tiny private boats across the channel to help.
It was in this rescue operation that Rupert has disappeared.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
The Cazalets | Episode 3
The Cazalets have just learned that Rupert is missing in action, and that grim piece of news arrived just as his wife Zoë was giving birth to their baby.
Until Rupert's loss, the Cazalets have had a fairly easy war. Their country place is big enough to house three generations of them -- plus a teacher, chauffeur, cook, nannies, maids, gardeners, and stable hands.
Tonight's story focuses on the younger generation.
Louise suddenly seems very grown up, and determined to go on the stage in spite of her mother's opposition.
Her cousin Clary is the only one in the family who refuses to believe her father Rupert is dead. She's trying to enlist General DeGaulle to search for him in France.
We meet a new member of the clan tonight. She is Villy's sister, Jessica. She's joining the family in their Sussex compound, and she brings along her son Christopher, a subdued and introspective young man who dislikes the hearty alpha-male customs of the Cazalet men.
Worse than that, he is a pacifist.
Third episode, The Cazalets.
The Cazalets | Episode 4
The war is beginning to take a heavy toll on the Cazalet family as we resume tonight.
German bombing has destroyed 80 percent of their timber business, and the youngest brother Rupert is missing in action at Dunkirk and presumed dead.
On the bright side, Rupert's wife Zoë has a brand new baby.
The oldest brother Hugh, having lost a hand in the First World War, is not in uniform, but his philandering brother Edward is, and he's having an action-packed war on the adultery front.
His wife Villy stays loyally in the family compound with a new baby she didn't want.
Villy is more concerned with her grown daughter Louise, who, war or no war, and over Villy's dead body if need be, is determined to become an actress.
Last time, we saw Louise falling in love with a fashionable portrait painter and Navy officer named Michael Hadleigh. A woman who knows him has warned Louise that he is "a great breaker of hearts."
Fourth episode, The Cazalets.
The Cazalets | Episode 5
When we first met the Cazalet family it was 1937, and England was still at peace. It's now 1941. Hitler has just invaded Russia. Japan is about to attack Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the war and turning the whole world into a battlefield.
For the Cazalets, the war has finally come home, quite literally: Part of their country estate is now being used as a hospital for men shattered by the war.
Zoë, whose husband Rupert is missing and presumed dead, has been reading to a terribly scarred young soldier, and he has obviously fallen in love with her.
Love seems to nourish some of the Cazalets and afflict others.
The oldest brother, Hugh, adores his wife Sibyl and has been devastated by the knowledge that she is dying.
His sister Rachel has a lesbian devotion to her old friend Sid, but hates the carnal aspect of love.
His brother Edward, on the other hand, is such a tireless Don Juan that he can't stop himself from making a pass at his own daughter.
Concluding episode, The Cazalets.
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