In 1978 London Weekend Television bought to the screen a lavish 13-part costume drama based on one of the most talked about and flamboyant women of the Victorian age. Lillie Langtry left an impression on all who met her and all who knew of her. Oscar Wilde wrote 'Lady Windermere's Fan' for her, Judge Roy Bean named a town, Langtry Texas, after her, the future King of England became besotted by her and George Bernard Shaw wrote; "I resent Mrs. Langtry. She has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent as well as lovely. It's a frightening combination of attributes."
Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was born at St. Saviour’s rectory on the island of Jersey in 1853, where her father was the Dean of Jersey. By the time she was fourteen years old she had received her first marriage proposal. But Emilie had much broader horizons even at such a young age. Described as the most beautiful girl on the island her pure white skin had already earned her the nickname of 'The Jersey Lily'. But Jersey was too parochial for such a beautiful and intelligent young woman and Lillie was captivated about tales of London's high society. In 1874 she did marry but her marriage to Irish landowner Edward Langtry was, some say, not out of love-but out of ambition. Although not wealthy, Edward was the owner of a yacht and his promise to take her away from Jersey and set up home in London was too good an offer for her to turn down.
However, apart from Lillie herself, Edward's passions were fishing and drinking and instead of London they set up home in Southampton where Lillie developed typhoid fever and was seriously ill for several weeks. Her doctor, who had become besotted with her, convinced Edward that a move to London would aid her recovery much faster.
London in 1876 was arguably the capital of the world and this was where Lillie longed to be most. The following spring Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception by one her father’s friends the 7th Viscount Ranelagh at his home in Lownes Square. Still in mourning for her brother who had died in a riding accident, Lillie attended the reception wearing only a plain black gown with her red-gold hair gathered in a simple knot at the nape of her neck. Amid all the colourful costumes of the London society ladies Lillie Langtry, as Oscar Wilde was later to write, had risen "like Venus from the Jersey foam". The eminent English artist John Millais was at the reception and asked Lillie if he might paint her portrait. But he wasn't the only one captivated by her beauty and by the end of the evening the young artist Frank Miles had already produced several sketches of her.
Not only were the guests taken by the beauty of Lillie but were also taken by her outgoing personality, her confidence and her ability to talk about a number of different subjects. Within days invitations to soirees, sporting events and parties arrived at her door, everyone wanted to be associated with her and the Frank Miles drawing was outselling all the other postcards of society and stage beauties. Within the week talk in London was of nothing else. Artists clamoured for her to sit for them and it wasn't long before Lillie was invited to join the elite of London's society. Albert Edward Prince of Wales and his inner circle of friends were known as "The Marlborough Set" and it was considered a great honour to be accepted by the Prince and his social group that included the artist Whistler, and, most notably Oscar Wilde. As Lillie’s fame spread throughout London the future King of England desired a meeting with this woman of intelligence and humour.
A discreet dinner party was arranged at Sir Allen Young's London home. Mrs Langtry was sat next to the Prince whilst her husband was put up the other end of the table. The Prince, 'Bertie,' a well-known philanderer having several affairs, but only with married women, was captivated by Lillie and almost immediately they began to have an affair. Bertie had a house built especially for them in Bournemouth - a place where the two could be completely alone. After four years the romance came to an end in dramatic style. At a fancy dress ball, Lilly committed a faux pas by wearing a costume exactly the same as Bertie's. When he reproached her for it she dropped ice down the royal collar. However, Lillie wasn't entirely finished with Royalty and took up with Bertie's cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg. But Lillie became pregnant and to avoid a scandal Louis disappeared on a two-year cruise.
Without the 'protection' of her royal connections the creditors closed in on the Langtry’s and in October of 1880 Edward Langtry was declared bankrupt. With no money to her name and Edward now permanently away on fishing trips, Lillie had to find a means of supporting herself. It was famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt who suggested that Lillie capitalize on her fame and become an actress. The first society woman to take to the stage and also the first to endorse commercial products (Pears Soap, Watt's Glycerine Jelly of Violets), Lillie's new career soon blossomed and her company left for a tour of the United States where she became a major star.
Playing the part of 'Lillie' in this excellent BAFTA Award winning production was the delightful Francesca Annis who soon came to admire Lillie as much as London had a century before. "Once you were married you could roam as much as you liked. They were a very promiscuous lot" she said of the Victorian elite. "In an age when women were dreadfully exploited by men, Lillie Langtry reversed the situation. She exploited everything and everyone, but she still managed to retain their respect." For the role Annis wore 200 costumes, each especially designed. In all, 3,000 costumes were made for the production and under each dress the actresses wore authentic underwear of the period - corsets, bustles and petticoats. Nearly 100 studio sets were used and each one was meticulously designed with period props worth thousands of pounds.
The production was hailed as a great success due in no small part to the performance of Francesca Annis who portrayed Lillie from a young girl to an elderly woman of 76 years. "She portrays age in a subtle way" said writer-director John Gorrie at the time. "It is an attitude of mind rather than what the eye sees, slight differences in movement and reaction. It stems from her own skill. Francesca simply became Lillie Langtry."
Review: Laurence Marcus, June 4th 2007.
Referenced from 'Masterpiece Theatre - A Celebration of 25 Years of Outstanding Television' by Terrence O'Flaherty
for Television Heaven