The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978) DVD Review:  A Stunning Achievement

Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie was one of the great literary characters of the 20th century. Her book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in 1961, and was an immediate sensation. The first cinematic adaptation of the story came in 1969, and starred Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie. Director Ronald Neame did a marvelous job with it, but focused on specific elements of the book, as was necessary for a feature film. As great as that movie was, it took the 1978 television adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to fully explore the story. 35 years later, that landmark series has finally been released on DVD.

The seven-part Prime of Miss Jean Brodie mini-series was a stunning achievement. In her portrayal of Miss Jean Brodie, Geraldine McEwan was magnificent. Thanks to the expanded format, there was also plenty of time to explore many of the events that had been left out of the film.

When The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie aired on PBS, it was highly praised. Yet after the initial run, the series sat on the shelf for decades. Acorn Media have corrected that slight with this new triple-DVD set. Thirty-five years is a long time, and I wondered if the show would still be as charming as I remembered it. I am happy to report that it does indeed retain all of its charm and more. This is British drama at its very finest.

For those who may not be familiar with the story, I will briefly summarize. Jean Brodie was born in 1890. When we catch up to her, it is in the fall of 1929, and she is teaching in England. As the first episode ends, she has accepted a post at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh, Scotland. She begins there on January 1, 1930. As she explains to all who will listen, it is the start of an exciting new decade. An even bigger event for her is the fact that she has reached the age of 40, and proclaims herself to be in the prime of her life.

The remaining six chapters take place during the second term of the school year. Miss Brodie is in charge of about 20 young ladies, who appear to be 10-12 years old. She feels it is her duty to teach “her girls” how to live, and what is important in life. She is an unabashed bohemian, and strives to impart her appreciation of art upon her students.

The quirks that Muriel Spark imbued Jean Brodie with are marvelous. An example of this is her adoration of the ancient Romans. Her love of the classics has blinded her to the realities of the world of 1930. She has boundless admiration for Benito Mussolini, because in her mind he is “strong” and represents a return to former Roman glories.

She is forced to face the facts in a very powerful confrontation with the parents of Giulia Cibelli (Ramona Kaye). Although they had tried to keep things quiet, the girl’s family have fled Italy, as the father was a journalist who had been tortured by Mussolini for things he had written. When the Cibellis discover that Miss Brodie has been extolling the virtues of El Duce in class, they are outraged. The encounter between the idealistic, and naïve Jean Brody with the girl’s family is riveting.

As Giulia’s father explains, “Italy is a poor country, full of farmers. The only wealth it has acquired was taken by force. Even the culture you admire originated with the Greeks.” As he says this, we watch Geraldine McEwan as Jean Brodie come to understand the truth, and it is an unforgettable moment. It was undoubtedly instances such as this that Muriel Spark was referring to when she said of all the actresses that had portrayed the title character, McEwan was her favorite.

Then there is the much-ballyhooed arrival of Pavlova, a famous ballerina, for an Edinburgh performance. When talking about it in the teacher’s lounge, Miss Brodie asks the music instructor to focus on Chopin, whose music will be featured in the recital. She also convinces the gym teacher to begin teaching dance to the girls.

When the big day arrives, Miss Brodie takes four of her “favorites,” even going so far as to purchase their tickets for them. Dorothy (Penelope Allsopp) has never really “shone” before, but when Miss Brodie tells her that one day she will be a great dancer, the young lady takes it as gospel. When she tells her parents that she is going to leave home to become a famous ballerina, they are flabbergasted. Once again, Miss Jean Brodie is forced to explain herself to parents who do not understand her ideas.

In this case, the encounter is much more tender. In fact, it is one of the most heartwarming exchanges in the series. From the girl’s attitude, and the things she has said, we have gotten the impression that she comes from a difficult home. When we meet her parents though, we immediately see that these are basically peasants, who are scrimping and saving everything they have to get the finest education possible for their daughter. It is clear they love her more than anything in the world, and are doing all they can to try and make hers a better life.

When Miss Brodie explains that she does see talent in their daughter, and more importantly that she wants the girl to believe in herself, they understand. It is a beautiful moment, in a series filled with such small, all- too-human interchanges.

These are the things that make The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie such an engaging series. In many ways, very little really “happens,” and yet everything happens, because these young lives are changed forever by their encounters with Miss Jean Brodie. It is a timeless story, and I found myself unable to break away for the entire six-plus hours, except to change DVDs.

Looking back, I realize that there may be more to my attraction to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie than I initially realized. My grandmother was a retired school teacher, and even though I was pretty young, she would encourage me to watch programs like Masterpiece Theatre with her. While much of it was a little over my head, I have come to adore these types of shows as I have gotten older. We watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie together, and I am sure that has something to do with my fondness for it.

There is much more to my appreciation for this series than nostalgia though. I found Miss Jean Brodie to be a stand-in for a couple of teachers who really cared, and had a profound impact on my life. Those of us who have been fortunate to have had such people in their lives know what I am talking about. It is unfortunate that all teachers are not like that, but wehn you get one, you remember them. Nobody is perfect though, as Jean’s ill-advised admiration for Mussolini shows all too clearly.

As a character study, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is just about as good as they get. I am not at all surprised that the novel was named one of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. And the filmed adaptations have opened it up to an even larger audience.

I believe that the 1969 Maggie Smith film is excellent. In fact, I watched it again recently just to confirm this. As good as it is though, I believe this mini-series to be even better. The seven-part Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a classic in every way, and I thank Acorn for bringing it back after all this these years.

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Greg Barbrick

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