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The Countess Alice (1992)

The Countess Alice

The Countess Alice is a one-off drama.  Produced by the BBC and WGBH Boston, it was first broadcast on 1 July 1992 (BBC2, 9-10:30pm), as part of the ScreenPlay strand of programmes.


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Above are a few publicity photos that were taken for The Countess Alice.

Please click on each image to see the full version.

Overview

When The Countess Alice was broadcast in the US, several months after it premiered in the UK, ZoŽ presented a special introduction to this intense, brooding drama.  Speaking directly to camera, she describes her character and the main elements of the plot, which explores the nature of cultural and personal identity.

'I play Dame Wendy [Hiller]'s daughter in tonight's story, which was written especially for television,' she begins.  'It's a story that bridges two countries - England and Germany - and two eras, the 1930s and the 1990s.

'Alice, Countess von Holzendorf, has lived in both worlds, in both times.  She enjoyed the carefree life of London in the Thirties; the glamour and spice of all-night parties, dressing up in risquť costumes, appearing in high society magazines.  This was the age of the decadent debutante.

'Half a century on, a magazine editor decides to do a follow-up story.  Where are they now? 

'For Alice, this innocent question triggers a more searching inquiry into her past, which haunts her.  She fell passionately in love with a Prussian Count and moved to what would later become East Germany, where she remained to almost the end of the War.  What happened after that, she's never fully explained.

'Her daughter, Connie, intrigued by her past, wants to return to her birthplace in East Germany - now the Berlin Wall is down, there seems nothing to stop her.  The only obstacle is her mother, who is curiously opposed to the idea.  It threatens their already uneasy relationship; they live together in the faded grandeur of a London apartment.

'Perhaps Alice's foreboding is right.  Perhaps some secrets are best left buried forever.'

Zoe's closing remarks about the mystery at the heart of the programme echo Alice's words to her restless, unhappy daughter following the revelation that Connie has booked a trip to Germany: 'The past is dead and buried, Konstanze.  It has gone forever; it cannot be visited.'

During The Countess Alice, however, both women will be forced to confront their shared past and the secrets that haunt it.

Despite Ė or perhaps partly because of Ė her mother's reluctance to dwell on the past, librarian Connie is determined to see for herself the family's ancestral home.  She brandishes the tickets for her flights in front of Alice, as if to underscore her determination.

Witness to this tense scene between mother and daughter is a young, ambitious journalist, Nick Black.  Nick has been commissioned by Albany magazine to write a glossy 'then-and-now' feature about Alice and the remaining members of her social circle from Thirties London.

Rather than being content to sugar-coat Alice's experiences for Albany's readers, however, he secretly plans to write 'another piece altogether'.  Nick wants to look beyond the glamour and decadence in order to investigate the Countess's life in Germany, where she remained for much of the Second World War with her husband, Count Friedrich von Holzendorf.  Why did Alice not return to England as soon as it became clear that war was on the horizon?

Nick's first encounter with the Countess occurs during the funeral of one of her oldest friends.  As soon as Connie leaves her mother's side, the journalist seizes his chance to speak to Alice alone and persuades her to be interviewed the very next day.

Travelling home from the funeral, Connie sits despondently as Alice and her friends chatter away in the back of the car.  Tilly and Beattie, more spirited and sprightly than the Countess, question Alice's reluctance to join Connie in travelling to the former East Germany, now that the German reunification has made such a journey possible.  The proposed trip is clearly putting the relationship between Alice and her daughter under considerable strain. 

'I want us to go together,' emphasises Connie.

'You seem to forget that Holzendorf was a place of heartache to me,' her mother replies firmly, hinting at the tragic events that left her widowed.

Alice remembers her husband 'Freddy' fondly, always refers to her daughter by her German name ('Konstanze'), and demonstrates her strong grasp of German by teaching the language to a couple of pupils in the flat she shares with her daughter.  Nevertheless, she has no wish to return to the country after spending forty-five years living in genteel poverty in London.

The combination of Nick's probing questions and Connie's discoveries in Germany will force Alice to recall intensely painful memories, while her daughter will be faced by even more painful revelations, shaking this mother-daughter relationship to its core.

The day after Connie departs for Germany, Alice, Tilly and Beattie are reminded of their glamorous youth when they take part in a Terence Donovan photoshoot for Albany.

Afterwards, Nick again takes advantage of Alice being on her own in order to resume his questioning.  During the course of the evening, the Countess lowers her guard and confides in the journalist, explaining that Freddy was terribly injured during the War and too attached to the family estate to leave it behind, even though life in Germany was increasingly dangerous.  Remembering her daughterís birth in 1944, Alice remarks, 'It was no time to have a new baby.'

Eventually, she made the heart-breaking decision to flee the country without her husband, in order to save Connieís life and her own.  The pain of that decision is clearly still raw as the Countess struggles to contain her emotions.

The familyís ancestral home looks cold and unwelcoming, hidden deep in the German countryside, as Connie peers through the bars of a large gate at the end of the driveway.  The house and its grounds have fallen into disrepair, and no-one comes to open the front door when she rings the bell.  Only the grizzled caretaker, Bruno, offers Connie any assistance; but as soon as she explains who she is, he flies into a rage and threatens to call the police. 

Shocked and bewildered by his unexpected reaction, she stumbles away from the house without having been able to fulfil the purpose of her trip. 

A passing cyclist stops when he sees Connieís distress.  Werner Betz is a kindly academic who lives in an apartment at the house.  He, too, is taken aback when Connie explains the reason for her visit, but does not prevent her from going in search of the family graveyard in the woods.

As darkness falls, what Connie finds among the weathered headstones and statues brings her world crashing down.  Werner tries to comfort her and explains that the local community is fearful of people from the West who might be attempting to reclaim their families' real estate, now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but he can do little to relieve her anguish.

'Why did you come back, Connie?  What did you hope to find?' he asks her that evening as they sit quietly together in his apartment. 

Connie struggles to answer Werner's questions and can do little more than express frustration with her life in London: 'I'm middle-aged.  I have no children.  My work bores me.'  Later, in a more pronounced state of shock, she is overwhelmed by the realisation that her discoveries in the graveyard have changed her life forever.  'I feel so adrift,' she sobs.

Meanwhile, having spent the evening interviewing Alice about her troubled past, Nick gains an unexpected insight into her daughter's personal life, too, when he unearths a bundle of love letters documenting a failed relationship.

With scant regard for Connie's privacy, Nick reads the letters, betraying the trust that Alice has placed in him.  Suddenly, the source of the librarianís unhappiness becomes clear.  Now the journalist knows Connie's secrets, as well as those of the Countess.

When Connie returns to London, feeling like a stranger in her own home, she prepares for a showdown with her mother.  She gives Alice an ultimatum: the old lady must tell the truth about her escape from Germany or else she will never see her daughter again. 

Connie's considerable distress and anger compel Alice, at last, to share the whole story of her experiences during the Second World War.  She had told Nick only a fraction of it.

Recalling a series of horrifying events in Germany, followed by a nightmarish five-week journey to England with the infant Connie, the elderly lady tries to justify her actions: 'I had lost everything.  I couldn't face losing you as well.' 

Connie struggles to comprehend what she is hearing.  While the Countess loves her daughter dearly, she has also hurt her deeply.  Connie cannot contain her rage, and her relationship with her mother breaks down.
 

Furious with Alice, Connie initially turns to Nick, but soon realises that he is a false friend.

Only a heartfelt letter from her mother can begin to relieve Connie's anguish.  Having read the letter at home, a newly calm Connie prepares to make a fresh start with the Countess.  She opens the curtains wide to let the daylight in, as a symbol of this new beginning.  Alice and Connie will now acknowledge the past, without living in its shadow.

Cast

Alice, Countess Von Holzendorf ... Dame Wendy Hiller
Konstanze (Connie) ... ZoŽ Wanamaker
Nick Black ... Duncan Bell
Werner ... Wolf Kahler
Tilly ... Sylvia Barter
Beattie ... Madge Ryan
Jane ... Lucinda Fisher
Margot ... Patricia Quinn
Debbie ... Hannah Cresswell
Sarah ... Sarah Crowden
Vivian ... Jan Van Hool
Jeremy ... Martin Wimbush
Himself ... Terence Donovan
Caretaker ... Michael Wolf
German Taxi Driver ... Carl Duering
London Cab Driver ... James Appleby
Vicar ... Chris Stanton
Restaurant Manager ... Alexander Torriglia

Crew

Writer: Allan Cubitt
Director: Moira Armstrong
Producer: Colin Ludlow
Executive Producer: George Faber 
Photography: John Daly
Film Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Production Designer: Donal Woods
Costume Designer: Colin Lavers
Graphic Designer: Rosalind Dallas
Make-up Designer: Jean Speak 
Music: Ilona Sekacz

Notes

The recent success of programmes such as Prime Suspect I (1991) and Love Hurts (1992-4) meant that, by the time The Countess Alice was broadcast, Zoe had become a high-profile television actress.  Her popularity led UK TV listings magazine the Radio Times to make her their cover star (as pictured below) for the issue covering the week that Allan Cubitt's drama was shown.

In the accompanying interview, Zoe emphasised that she was determined to keep her feet on the ground, despite her fame: 'Me Ė a star?  Oh, I hate that word.  I donít know what a 'star' is.  I'm a purist, you see.  To me, stars are pure charisma, like Garbo or Monroe.  A star is someone who twinkles from afar.'

In addition, ZoŽ explained that the frustration she experienced during an earlier period of her career, when she found herself unemployed shortly after leaving drama school, had fuelled her performance as restless Connie in The Countess Alice.

Following its UK broadcast, The Countess Alice was shown by PBS in the US, on 24 January 1993, as part of WGBH Boston's Masterpiece Theatre drama anthology series.  Two other dramas from Masterpiece's 1992-3 series also feature ZoŽ: Memento Mori and The Blackheath Poisonings (both 1992).

The Countess Alice's director, Moira Armstrong, also directed Zoe in one of her earliest TV appearances, that of Belle in A Christmas Carol (1977).

Press coverage

'The Countess Alice was as perfect as the fragments of chamber music that punctuated it,' declared the Guardian.

'Magic casting and a delight all round,' agreed the Observer.

'The acting is outstanding, as is Allan Cubitt's screenplay,' emphasised the Daily Express.  Another review by the same newspaper heaped praise on ZoŽ's performance, remarking that 'the eloquent-eyed Wanamaker could have wrung blood from the hardest heart with a snappy, nervy manner never quite concealing her vulnerability and yearning.'

New York Magazine was also highly impressed by ZoŽ's acting: 'She discovers, in the recesses of any character she inhabits, odd qualms and flickering graces and astonishing depths.'

Merchandise

Unfortunately, The Countess Alice is not available on DVD or in any other format.

Related links

IMDb: The Countess Alice programme details

BFI Film & TV Database: The Countess Alice programme details


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