Support Frock Flicks with a small donation! During Snark Week and beyond, we’re grateful for your monthly pledges for exclusive content via Patreon or your one-time contributions via PayPal to offset the costs of running this site. You can even buy our T-shirts and swag. Think of this like supporting public broadcasting, but with swearing and no tax deductions!
We’ve discussed the TV movie The Lady and the Highwayman (1988) here on the blog, but we always seem to get requests for a more in-depth snark than what we’ve already done. So, I finally sat down and watched the whole thing just to deliver this final, definitive, Frock Flicks Official Review on The Lady and the Highwayman™ so you people will stop bugging us about it.
The first hurdle one has to overcome when watching The Lady and the Highwayman is finding a non-potato quality version of it somewhere out there. I regret to inform you that said non-potato quality version does not, in fact, exist. Even the DVD is a poor quality rip from a VHS recording of the broadcast, so it’s REALLY hard to see any actual costuming details.
But here’s what confused me about why we are consistently urged (nay, demanded) to do a full review of this film because it’s allegedly so bad, because honestly, the costumes (potato quality aside) are actually really good. Yes, it is a Barbara Cartland adaptation, and Cartland was not exactly known for her high literary quality, but even the plot isn’t terrible. It’s got Michael York and Oliver Reed in it, so that should set your expectations about acting quality. Yes, Hugh Grant is rocking a historical mullet in all it’s glory, but that’s pretty much par for the course for this era of filmmaking. And all the female characters have a lot more spaniel curls than was probably necessary, but their hair is up and styled correctly for the era. The costumes all fit beautifully, they look correct for the mid-17th century, no bobby pin shortages … I mean … am I missing something? Is it just because it’s a romance novel-turned-made for TV special? I can’t figure it out.
My point is, clearly there was a budget and someone in charge who knew what they were doing when it came to the costumes.
So let’s compare the women’s costumes to some portraits of the era, and maybe you guys can help me to see whatever it is you all see when you tell me “it’s so bad.” We will start with the villainess of the show, Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine.
Barbara wasn’t the first of Charles II’s many mistresses, but she was by far the most powerful. There really wasn’t an official role afforded to royal mistresses in the English court as there was in France, but she was analogous in power to her French contemporary Madame de Montespan. She was called “the uncrowned queen” for a reason. Charles II was inordinately loyal to her (not so much between the sheets, but then again, neither was she), and she wielded a ridiculous amount of power as Mistress of the Bedchamber to the Queen (the two women hated one another, and Catherine of Braganza was forced into the arrangement at Charles’ insistence). So, that’s all the backstory you really need to know about Babs in order to grok her character’s motivations in the movie.
However, movie-Barbara is really not operating on the same level as historical-Barbara. She’s introduced in the plot as a scheming mistress of Charles II, who is insecure enough in her own beauty and standing at court to motivate her to try to destroy the new girl, Lady Panthea Vyne, for no other reason than Panthea catches the eye of the King for a hot second. Historical-Barbara would probably not have even bothered, especially this early on in her tenure as royal mistress, but whatever, every romantic drama film needs a mean girl to torment the sweet-faced heroine. And ok, the historical-Barbara was notoriously petty. I just doubt she’d go to the lengths movie-Barbara did to eliminate a potential rival.
As for Panthea (Lysette Anthony), she’s basically entirely made up. There’s really no historical basis for her character, and she falls into a myriad of romance genre tropes centering on the Spunky Heroine (up to and including representing herself against charges of treason in the High Court, which, of course, fails). She has a confusing relationship with her cousin, Lucius Vyne (Hugh Grant), that it took me a while to figure out … Lucius is the rightful heir to Panthea’s family estate (since she’s a woman and cannot inherit it), and that estate is up for grabs because Lucius is presumed dead (enter plot point dealing with Rudolph, Panthea’s distant cousin who schemes with Lady Castlemaine to eliminate the competition and take the inheritance for himself). Except Lucius really isn’t dead. He’s been living on the lam for the last two years after helping Charles II escape detection during a reconnaissance mission to England prior to Cromwell’s downfall. I was never entirely clear on why he’s been living on the lam in England, but figured it had something to do with him not being able to get back to the Netherlands or something … anyway, whatever, he’s now an outlaw (complete with the dashing nickname “the Silver Blade”) who spends his time stealing from the rich to give to the poor, blah blah blah, we get it, he’s pretty and she’s pretty and at some point they’re going to fall in love.
Panthea has to deal with a myriad of shitty men as a single woman of good fortune, including a brief marriage to some gross old guy who manipulated her into it by lying about potentially being able to save her brother from execution (too late, he’s already dead) if she agrees to marry him. That whole thing ends as abruptly as it began when, upon leaving the church, Panthea and her creepy new husband encounter the Silver Blade (but not before hubby stomps Panthea’s dog to death in the carriage, so … yeah … trigger warning). Panthea asks the Silver Blade to help her bury the dog, and then upon returning to the carriage, he discovers a cache of stolen money that Creep Husband was secreting away in a compartment of the carriage. Creepy Husband and the Silver Blade then get into a slap-fight that ends with a duel, and Creepy Husband winds up dead. Womp womp.
A couple more years go by, and Panthea’s aunt decides it’s high time for her to get out there and find another husband, so she takes her to court, where Panthea immediately catches the eye of newly restored King Charles II,and his Queen, Catherine of Braganza. She is also noticed by Lady Castlemaine, who immediately hates her, especially after Queen Catherine takes an immediate liking to her. This is enough to trigger the whole plot to ruin Panthea’s life.
Costume designer Joan Ellacott (who really deserves her own WCW feature for the sheer number of really top-notch historical dramas she costumed over the years) had an excellent eye for the female silhouette of the 1660s and her team evidently was comprised of costume technicians that understood fit. I’ve tried to find out if any of these costumes were rentals, but it appears as if the principle ladies’ costumes were custom made for the production. I’ve also tried to find out if any of these costumes go on to subsequently reappear in other 17th-century films, at least in order to see if I could get better images to study, even trawling through my go-to resource Recycled Movie Costumes, but came up empty handed. Makes me wonder what happened to them.
So, yeah. I’m super confused as to why everyone keeps insisting this is a terrible movie when in reality it’s basically fluff with good costumes. It certainly does a lot better with the historical period than other films we’ve reviewed. And while the plot isn’t Oscar-worthy, it’s fine for what it needs to be: a vehicle for pretty dresses.
How do you feel about the costumes in The Lady and the Highwayman?