EmptyFriday, May 4, 9-10:30 p.m.
LONDON -- Conrad Black, now on trial in Chicago, was not the first newspaper mogul to run afoul of the law. Robert Maxwell, owner of the big-selling U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror, siphoned off £350 million from his company's pension fund in 1991. Thousands of employees lost their life savings. He was never tried because he fell off his yacht and drowned in mysterious circumstances aged 68 shortly afterwards.
Writer Craig Warner's BBC film "Maxwell" tells of those last days although a line at the beginning points out that some characters are changed, dates are shifted and some scenes are informed fiction. Still, producer and director Colin Barr has delivered a penetrating drama observing the power-hungry CEO scheme and connive to keep the reins on his debt-ridden empire.
David Suchet ("Poirot") creates a vivid impression of the uncouth and ruthless tycoon who got out of Czechoslovakia in World War II and fought bravely enough for the British to win the Military Cross. His family perished at Auschwitz and he was penniless when he landed in Britain but he had a shrewd eye for business. At his peak, despite his nickname the Bouncing Czech, he competed with Rupert Murdoch as the most rapacious and successful media baron in the U.K.
The film begins with Maxwell addressing the camera for an in-house promotion urging his employees not to take their money out of the company pension plan even though the government had just introduced private schemes. "You must trust me. We have your best interests at heart," he says.
Meanwhile, seeking the establishment and public approval he craves, he has snapped up a major publishing house that he cannot afford. An early scene demonstrates his callous talent for deal making. When son Kevin (Ben Caplan) buys newsprint at the going rate of £300 per ton, Maxwell is outraged. At a board meeting, he phones the head of the paper company and browbeats him into accepting £220 per ton, humiliating his son in the process.
He liked to speak of the 'Max factor,' which he thought helped him in business but was actually a term used disparagingly by city bankers. The film shows him as an accomplished wheeler-dealer, however, moving money from one of his 400 companies to the next and using his public companies to support his private ones shrewdly albeit illegally.
His top executives see what he's doing and become increasingly alarmed leading to recriminations and resignations. His hapless son, the only one of his seven surviving children depicted in the film, muddles on and keeps his father's secrets. Maxwell's devoted but neglected wife Betty (Patricia Hodge) keeps her backbone and upper lip stiff even when he wants to abandon her for his attractive secretary (Daniela Newby-Ashe).
As Maxwell's financial crisis deepens, Warner and Barr quicken the pace aided by Ian Moss's sharp cinematography and Mark Thornton's crisp editing. If there's a flaw in the script it's the tendency to have Maxwell repeat his notorious aphorisms such as "Business is war," "There's no such thing as money" and "Nobody notices anything."
But his devious and self-deluding character is summed up nicely when he says, "They say I rewrite copy but I don't. I respect journalists. I just cut out the bits I don't agree with."
Teleplay: Craig Warner
Executive producers: Nicky Mirsky, Hilary Salmon
Producer: Colin Barr
Director: Colin Barr
Director of photography: Ian Moss
Production designer: Stevie Herbert
Art director: Madelaine Leech
Costume designer: James Kearst
Editor: Mark Thornton
Music: Malcolms Laws, Nainita Desai
Robert Maxwell: David Suchet
Betty Maxwell: Patricia Hodge
Kevin Maxwell: Ben Caplan
Richard Baker: Duncan Bell
Peter Laister: Stuart Organ
Ben Woods: Tony Turner
Basil Brooks: Dan Stevens
Andrea Martin: Daniela Newby-Ashe
George Wheeler: Geoffrey Hutchings
Video producer: Arsher Ali
Nick Davies: Tim Wallers
Bob Cole: Adrian Scarborough
Irina: Olga Fedori