1 9 7 3 (UK)
4 x 50 minute episodes
This four-part BBC2 miniseries dramatised the true-life adventures of “Mad” Jack Howard (christened Charles Henry George), the 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire.
Episodes traced his life from 1914 (when he was eight years old) to his daring exploits in World War II – including rescuing dozens of refugee European nuclear scientists, a large supply of heavy water and millions of pounds in diamonds just before the Germans captured Paris.
He then became a self-taught bomb disposal expert who successfully defused dozens of large German bombs during the London Blitz.
Jack’s unconventional life ended in 1941 when he died as the victim of a bomb he was defusing, aged 35. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
The script (from Colin Morris) set out to explain the background to the boy, which led, inevitably, to the wanderlust and eventual eccentricity of the man.
Born in other circumstances, outside the sphere of the landed gentry whose ambience did its best to suffocate him, he might have achieved the greatest heights as a scientist. But from the moment when his grandmother gave him a chemistry set for his birthday, and he almost succeeded in blowing his young brothers and stately Charlton Hall into oblivion, his frustrations began.
Like a 20th-century St George seeking his own dragons to kill, Jack Howard was a misfit within the system into which he had been born, and the whole of the first episode was devoted to a remarkably concise and racy account of his early years – from the first moment of rebellion when young Jack climbs to the roof of Charlton to avoid an encounter with his godfather Lord Curzon (Angus MacKay), to his first taste of “a life of my own” as a cadet on a sailing schooner bound for Australia.
In both script and direction, there was a constant maintaining of authenticity in setting and behaviour. There were some nice touches in the dialogue, too, such as an ironic reference to Lord Curzon’s bitter political disappointment (“you are a lucky boy to know a future Prime Minister of England”); the constant reference by his Petty Officer instructor at Osborne Naval College to “Mister Earl of Suffolk, sir!”, and his seeking of a private interview with the august and unapproachable Captain of the same establishment to invite him to “shoot at Charlton in the Christmas holidays.”
Various young actors almost managed the never-easy feat of taking Jack and his brothers through their infant and teenage years, with Ronald Pickup appearing in the last minutes of the premiere episode to take over the role he would play for the next three weeks.
Virginia McKenna as Jack’s mother, the Countess of Suffolk, neatly rode the twin steeds of love for her son and horror at his escapades; William Dexter had the right bearing to move naturally from his role as Lord of the Manor to his duties as an officer in India at Kitchener’s call, while Angus Mackay made the most of the character-establishing dialogue of Lord Curzon, explaining how he had sacked his “little slut of a housemaid” without a character for allowing the footman to sleep with her.
The music, composed by Anthony Isaac, aided rather than hindered a smooth and imaginative production.
Charles “Jack” Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk
Margaret, Countess of Suffolk
Dowager Countess of Suffolk
Cecil ‘Cis’ Howard
Mark Blackwell Baker
19th Earl of Suffolk
Col. Edward Gilette
Lt. Col. Golding
Rebellion | Banishment | The Drawn Sword | The Battle