The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton



9-10:30 p.m., Sunday, May 20
KCET Los Angeles

"Masterpiece Theatre" must have thought it would have a dark horse in this coy, meandering portrait of Isabella Beeton, arguably the most famous cookery writer in British history (and, by implication, an early feminist), whose "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" became, and to some extent remains, a British cookbook institution.

A primary accomplice in this 90-minute dramatization of Mrs. Beeton's short life (she died in 1865 at age 28, shortly after giving birth to her fourth child) was a somewhat controversial biography by Guardian writer Kathryn Hughes, who collaborated with Sarah Williams on the script. Far from happily chronicling Mrs. Beeton as a 19th century Betty Crocker, Hughes focused on the less idyllic aspects of her life, including the havoc wrought by her manically entrepreneurial husband.

The production itself is quite beautiful, capturing the feeling of history carefully and lovingly researched and restored (though using some Prokofiev in the score is a jarring choice). The device of having Mrs. Isabella narrate her life from the grave was probably the best chance to inject some drama into the proceedings, but the direction and the script are both so indecisive that even the semi-charismatic stars (Anna Madeley as Mrs. Beeton and JJ Feild as her husband) look lost.

You can see why the producers had high hopes for Mrs. Beeton; if only they had been able to create her as a juicy combination of Julia Child and Martha Stewart. But the facts, as presented onscreen, are too sanitized, and besides, 90 minutes would not have been enough time to thoroughly explore such a potentially fascinating character.

By the way, calling Mrs. Beeton a feminist depends on whether the model is an adorable Diane Keaton-type actor (in one of the film's few high points, Mrs. Beeton confronts a live turtle in preparation for testing a turtle soup recipe) or a sturdy Emma Pankhurst suffragette.

Executive producer: Jessica Pop
Executive producer for "Masterpiece Theatre": Rebecca Eaton
Associate producer: Sue Smith
Teleplay: Kathryn Hughes, Sarah Williams
Based on the book by: Kathryn Hughes
Director: Jon Jones
Director of photography: Ian Moss
Production designer: Claire Kenny
Editor: Sue Wyatt
Art director: Stephen Wong
Costume designer: Charlotte Holdich
Wardrobe supervisor: Pat Williamson
Composer: Charlie Mole
Casting: Jenny Duffy
Isabella Beeton: Anna Madeley
Sam Beeton: JJ Feild
Henry Dorling: Jim Carter
Elizabeth Dorling: Anna Chancellor
Anne: Siobhan Hayes
Fred Greenwood: Joseph Mawle
Myra: Andrea Riseborough
Henrietta: Liz Kettle
Mrs. Beeton: Maureen Bennett