SNARK WEEK: OK, OK, We Reviewed The Lady and the Highwayman (1988)!

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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.

This is as good as it’s going to get.

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.

Yes, there is this…

 

And this…

 

But there’s then this.

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.

Portrait of Barbara Villiers by Peter Lely, c. 1670.

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.

Barbara was famed for her long auburn hair. Of course, the movie makes her a blonde, but whatevs.

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.

The Lady and the Highwayman, 1989

 

A higher quality still of the same dress as above. The only real quibble I have with any of this is the chandelier necklace looks modern, but it does get the idea across that Lady Castlemaine is rich and not to be trifled with.

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.

It’s the 17th century, so first-cousin marriage isn’t weird or anything.

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.

I really wish the quality was better because this gown looks like it could be really outstanding if only we could see it clearly. Looks like silk satin or at least a heavy taffeta. For what it’s worth, pretty much all of the main female characters looked as if they were wearing silks, but again, it’s hard to tell for certain due to the film quality.

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.

The King and Queen seem like nice people.

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?

 

 

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

14 Responses

  1. Gwyn

    I remember it fondly (it was the year that I thought Hugh Grant was just the bees knees). This was the second Cartland romance given a budget and actual good cast (first was “Hazard of Hearts” with HB-C and Diana Rigg).

    Reply
  2. Kathryn MacLennan

    I saw this when I was about ten and could never remember the name. I particularly remember that dress with the yellow bows down the front.

    Reply
  3. Charity

    Back in my high school quest to see ALL the costume dramas, I bought that crap DVD off Amazon and watched it and thought the plot was decent, but the quality was so bad, I just chucked it in the ‘donate’ pile. Actually, now that I think about it, I might have pawned it off on some friends who liked the story. ;)

    Reply
  4. Michael McQuown

    I haven’t looked at my copy of it for awhile, but I don’t remember any tech problems. Sure, the story has a few cliches, but the wardrobe is good, the hair is good, and the actors are more than competent. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll look at it again this weekend, and if it’s good quality, I’d be willing to pass it on to FF for a second look.

    Reply
  5. Popka Superstar

    I have this on DVD but haven’t watched it even though I watched a bunch of those Cartland movies from the same era in a row. It looks totally fine! Honestly the others also looked fine from what I remember, aside from the usual problems from that time, i.e. polyester satin and weird hair.

    I’ve always heard it’s a bad movie though maybe that is what people mean. The other Cartland movies I watched seemed to all have different versions of the same plot.

    Reply
  6. Roxana

    Charles II was a total man-slut but he was loyal to the women he loved, standing by them through thick and thin, and that includes Catherine of Braganza. He sat with her when she was sick, anddefended her when the anti-papists went after her. Eventually she accepted that she’d have to share him and Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary that the queen had become a mistress, meaning she was getting as much attention as Charles’s other women – which beat being neglected.

    Reply
  7. 992234177

    I seem to remember one with Stephanie Beacham as a woman in the regency era with a sword stick about smuggling but I may be mis-remembering it.

    Reply
  8. Constance

    I watched this on Youtube and have it on now as background. Hugh’s mullet was the star for me. As for the movie, it is not horrible, kind of like the early version 1945 of the Wicked Lady, one I watch from time to time. That one has the woman as “highwayman” and is an entertaining film, to me at least. But this one is not terrible…also A Hazard of Hearts falls into same category with a young Helen Bonham Carter…

    Reply
  9. Lily Lotus Rose

    Is it just me, or is Hugh Grant giving off serious Robert Pattinson vibes in the top photo?

    Reply
  10. M.E. Lawrence

    The costumes and hair look very good (the eye shadow not so much, but it’s ’80s period drama…). And that’s a fantastic cast, apart from Lysette Anthony, who is competent but tends toward the vapid-blond look I find off-putting https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097707/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

    Pity about the lousy video-to-DVD quality. There are movies I’d like to see again–“Porgy and Bess” comes to mind–that I can’t bear to watch in such a sad state.

    Reply
  11. Dj

    I grew up watching this movie. I’ve always loved it. My son’s name is Lucius. 🙂🙂

    Reply

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