Russell Baker on Love in a Cold Climate
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 commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Episode 1 | Episode 2
Love in a Cold Climate | Episode 1
The story we begin tonight is adapted from two novels written shortly after World War II by Nancy Mitford. She was one of the famous Mitford sisters and we'll talk a little more about them later. But for now it's enough to say that there were six of them -- most of them either talented or scandalous -- and some of them both. Nancy was the oldest. She was of the generation that came of age during the cynical years after the first world war and belonged to a ruling class that had begun to seem a bit silly even to itself. She was one of the light-headed daughters of the very best people whom Evelyn Waugh satirized as "the bright young things." In fact Nancy and Waugh became close friends and both viewed the world with the same satirical zest for the absurd -- at least until middle-age solemnity set in. It had not yet set in for Nancy when she wrote The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. What she produced was a story light as a good soufflé and tart as a dry martini.
At the heart of things are three young daughters of the aristocracy who think only of love. There is the desperately romantic Linda who openly pursues love everywhere. There is the outwardly UN-romantic Polly who pursues it secretly. And there is our storyteller Fanny who pursues it efficiently. On the fringe there are more experienced women pursuing a bizarre assortment of males -- some of whom are pursuing each other. And of course, this being a love story, there is a Frenchman so masterful in the art of love that he makes all Englishmen seem like schoolboys. First installment, "Love in a Cold Climate."
The bad-tempered Lord Radlett being played by Alan Bates is a fairly accurate portrait of Nancy Mitford's own father. Somebody, not Nancy, has described him as a comic-opera English family tyrant. His was a family of daughters--he had six of them, and only one son. He had fought at the front in World War I and was proud of having been a ferocious killer of Germans, whom he despised -- though not much more than he despised Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and, for that matter, all foreigners. Not to mention Roman Catholics and homosexuals. He detested the young dandies Nancy brought home in the 1920s -- once threatened to horsewhip one for putting his feet on the sofa -- and threw another out of the house after spotting a comb sticking out of the young man's breast pocket. He referred to them, and everyone he disliked, as "sewers." This was his personal pronunciation of a word in the Tamil language meaning "pig," which he had learned in Ceylon. At one stage of life he'd had an office job in Covent Garden, the market district of London, where he had relieved the boredom by hunting rats with a mongoose. He was not much for literature. Jack London's White Fang was the only book he ever read, he once said, and it was so good he never felt the need to read another.
I'm Russell Baker. Goodnight
Love in a Cold Climate | Episode 2
Our story is about three young women in search of love and as we continue tonight they all seem to be on the verge of finding bliss. Fanny, who also serves as narrator of the story, is married to a young scholar teaching at Oxford. Linda, whose marriage to a banker's son turned out too boring to be endured, is en route to a refugee camp in the south of France -- there to be with the man she truly loves -- an idealistic young Communist who loves all humanity -- at least in the abstract. Back in England Polly Montdore is preparing to become the bride of the aging widower Boy Dougdale, the man she has secretly loved since childhood. Polly's mother Lady Montdore hates the marriage. For years she has kept Boy around to flatter and amuse her. There are even rumors that he is her lover. Whatever the case, having her only daughter marry a man twice her age -- a man whose hobby is needlepoint -- does not sit well with Lady Montdore. Boy himself does not seem terribly exhilarated about it. His wife of many years has just died. And there is reason to suspect he was actually looking forward to life as a widower before Polly summoned him back to marriage duty. Polly, however, anticipates happiness sublime. "Love in a Cold Climate," concluding episode.
It would take a book to deal with the fascinating lives of Nancy Mitford, the creator of tonight's story, and her five sisters. In fact, several books have been written on the subject, including a couple by the sisters themselves. One of them, Diana, married the leader of the British fascist party and spent two years in prison when he was interned in World War II. Another daughter, Unity, fell in love with Nazism, and then with Hitler. A third, Jessica, moved to California and outraged the American funeral industry with a critical book called The American Way of Death. Nancy was the first-born and the story she tells of Linda's affair with Fabrice is very close to the story of her own love affair with Colonel Gaston Palewski.
They did not meet on a railway platform in Paris but at a garden party in London, and he was not executed by the Germans but lived to a happy old age -- always in love with Nancy but in a detached fashion. He had always been an insatiable lover of women -- any and all women -- and he made no effort to conceal it from Nancy.
For a while she hoped they might marry, but she gradually conceded that he was born to be a lover not a husband, and accepted him as such in return for the pleasure they took in each other's company. When she died (in 1973) at the age of 68 he was at her bedside.
I'm Russell Baker, goodnight.
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