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Review of 'Fearless Frank'

Thanks to the British Film Institute, which has an unrivalled collection of British television programmes on video, I was recently able to watch again Fearless Frank, or Tidbits from the Life of an Adventurer. This television play by Andrew Davies was the Play of the Month on BBC2 in October 1978; it starred Leonard Rossiter as Frank Harris.

The play opens in Nice in 1922 with Harris in impotent old age dictating his autobiography, My Life and Loves, to his pretty young secretary (Susan Penhaligon). As he speaks each episode appears before us: thus we watch as Harris (played throughout by Rossiter complete with imposing moustache) enacts his heroic roles: the voyeuristic little boy; the young scholar who defeats the school bully in a boxing match; the teenage emigre crossing the Atlantic; the enterprising bootblack; the hotel clerk; the cowpuncher; the Casanova of Kansas ...

From time to time the narrative is interrupted by an incredulous interjection from his secretary or some other distraction such as the arrival of a servant with Nellie's dog 'Cappie'. Harris deals irritably with the diversion and continues his tale: how Byron Smith, Carlyle and de Maupassant confessed their sexual weaknesses to him; how he rescued the Evening News; traded witticisms with Whistler and Wilde; fell in love with Laura Clapton but married Emily Clayton; edited Hearth and Home and Modern Society with the lovely Enid Bagnold; and how he went to prison for cheeking a judge.

The optimism and ebullience of the opening is replaced by a darker tone as the story progresses. The braggart is exposed as a frightened old man, heartsick at the loss of his virility. Davies follows Philippa Pullar's suggestion that Harris' boasting was in part designed to impress his youthful emanuensis: no longer able to seduce her physically he could at least use his famous facility with words to prove his manhood. Davies underlines this point by having Susan Penhaligon also play a number of the women in Harris' story.

Leonard Rossiter's performance is extraordinary, not an impersonation so much as an expressionist portrait: Harris may not have looked or sounded quite like this, but Rossiter convincingly incarnates the force of Harris' presence, that overwhelming personality.

If there is a weakness in the play it is in Davies' concern to get so much of Harris' story into it, with events and characters flying past at such a rate that the viewer who is not already familiar with Harris' life and times may get lost. However, to a great extent Rossiter's energy and verve compensates for this so that the emotional meaning is always clear, even when the storyline is not.

Fearless Frank - in this, its original televised form, anyway - was an enjoyable entertainment with a nice touch of pathos. If it should turn up on some obscure cable or satellite channel - as these things sometimes do - or if you can visit the BFI in London (and are prepared to pay their fee, which is currently about 15 UK pounds), I recommend it.