What a weekend for television, even if you don't give a hoot about the Super Bowl.
First comes the exceptional CBS documentary "The Vanishing Family--Crisis in Black America" at 9 p.m. Saturday on Channel 2. Then at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 28 comes the latest PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" offering, a splendid six-parter about the vanishing British.
In most respects, "Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy" is spectacular.
"The Jewel in the Crown" used fictional characters to brilliantly recall the raping of India from the perspective of the outgoing privileged British middle class. From a loftier perspective, "The Last Viceroy" shows the releasing of India as the British make a wrenching, gurgling exit after 200 years of rule.
Heavy on pomp and gore and rich in characterization, "The Last Viceroy" is David Butler's account of Lord Louis Mountbatten's 1947-48 stint overseeing Britain's transfer of power to the people and partitioning of the land into two enemy nations, India and Pakistan.
Filmed in India and Sri Lanka, the George Walker production is grandly staged and directed with aplomb by Tom Clegg, reflecting the usual British impeccability in making historical drama look historical.
It is also at once exquisite--an Anglophile's feast of glorious sites and rites--and a horror story smearing the screen with the blood of warring Hindus and Muslims.
Affectionately known as "Dickie," the charming, ambitious, vain and princely Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten was a World War II naval hero and great grandson of Queen Victoria. He was dispatched to India to oversee dissolution of the shrinking empire's "brightest jewel," becoming the last viceroy and later independent India's first governor-general. Much of the first episode concerns Lord Louis and his spirited wife, Edwina, weighing the pros and cons of accepting the India assignment.
What "The Last Viceroy" does best is record the political and religious intrigues behind the tortured birth of separate Hindu and Muslim nations. That slice of history is played out against a background of savage bloodletting and butchery by both sides that has seldom been matched in a TV production.
Just picture this scene in a later episode: Ever so slowly, a train creeps into a railway station toward a platform crowded with Indians routinely waiting to embark. When it comes close enough, we can see that the train's Hindu passengers are dead, apparently murdered by Muslims, their twisted bodies hanging out of windows and lying in heaps on the blood-splashed floor.
In an earlier scene, Lord Louis and Edwina courageously walk through 10,000 angry, armed and shouting tribesmen like Moses parting the Red Sea. Then there is a fast cut from the Mountbattens' symbolic triumph to Edwina's horrified response to scores of murdered and mutilated passengers--including small children--in a gutted bus.
Ultimately, we see Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent crusader, dying a violent death.
Alistair Cooke has called Nicol Williamson a bit too much of a "lug" to play a brilliant swagger of a man like Mountbatten. Yes and no. Although less glamorous and more life-sized than the awesome Mountbatten, and certainly no physical match, Williamson is still a magnetic Lord Louis, looking splendid in his white naval uniform and swelled chest full of medals. You can easily accept him as the sort of commanding figure who could demand respect and have broad shoulders for an emerging nation to lean on.
Meanwhile, there are stunning performances here by Janet Suzman as Edwina and Ian Richardson as Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
There is something about Suzman that subtly conveys the regal ease and self-confidence of the old-moneyed, and on a more overt level, the intense energy that made Edwina an independent, dynamic figure in her own right.
Richardson is one of Britain's most versatile actors, a man of infinite faces and personalities, this time triumphing as the outwardly charming, inwardly tough Nehru.
Also, watch Sam Dastor as Gandhi, a performance that reaches aching perfection, and Vladek Sheybal as Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League.
We're tiptoeing through mine fields again, however, for "The Last Viceroy" is docudrama in block letters, a version of history that may not square with reality. There are warts here for all, but Pakistan's are far larger than independent India's. And there's no telling if Butler has exaggerated Mountbatten's influence and if India's leaders were at times as easily manipulated by him as they are here.
The larger blur involves the marital relationship of the Mountbattens, who apparently were less blissful in real life than shown here, and the relationship between Nehru and Edwina. According to some accounts, the Indian leader and Edwina began a romantic affair in India that endured until her death in 1960. Their affair is only hinted at in "The Last Viceroy," where they occasionally exchange meaningful glances and Nehru whispers to Edwina:
"Through one of you I have rediscovered the meaning of friendship. Through the other I have remembered what it is to love." Nice, but also ambivalent.
Much grimmer, though, was the fate of Mountbatten, who died in 1979 when his chartered fishing boat was blown up by the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Nor has the violence stopped in India, where three Sikhs were sentenced to death recently for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter.
The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi fades.