In the last month, the BBC in London has shown two bits of television that have captured the world's attention. There is a lavish filmic version of King Lear – arguably Shakespeare's greatest play – with Anthony Hopkins in the title role; and A Very English Scandal, in which Hugh Grant apparently gives the performance of his life as Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader who found himself up to his neck in the most deadly things because of his homosexuality.

The BBC's head publicist in Australia says there are no immediate plans to show either of these programs here – surely huge highlights for anyone interested in drama in this country. It's enough to make you wonder why anyone bothers with pay-TV in its British aspect when we are treated like such a dismissible dominion.

Anthony Hopkins as King Lear.

Photo: BBC

Anthony Hopkins' Lear and Hugh Grant's Thorpe should be such obvious big-event television that BBC First should rush to show them, pretty much simultaneously, or with minimum delay, in the same way The Handmaid's Tale or Game of Thrones are aired.

Let's stick for the moment with King Lear, which I have seen (it aired in Britain on May 28). Hopkins with his manifestly big-time equipment has all the qualifications to be a notable Lear: the grandeur of the voice, the ability to convey menace and poignancy in equal measure.

The power is there in the television adaptation, directed by Richard Eyre, former head of Britain's National Theatre, who made films such as Scandal with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (and sometimes looks more of a stage than a film natural).


Despite that, this Lear is very mobile and arresting. Yes, it makes a ramshackle shopping mall into the heath (a bit of a gimmick) and has a rather lacklustre Edmund (John Macmillan) but Emma Thompson – created a Dame in the Queen's Birthday honours this year – is a superb and plausible Goneril. Jim Broadbent as Gloucester and Jim Carter (the butler from Downton Abbey) are better than their high-recognition casting would suggest.

The play is cut to a very tight two hours but you scarcely miss a line and the overall effect is riveting.

Aspects of Hopkins' characterisation admittedly seem to have gone walkabout. The idea of delivering the "Howl" (the supreme moment of tragic excruciation) as a series of affectless monosyllables is a Brechtian alienation effect too far and it's not saved by the floodgates that open in the final outpouring of feeling.

But that's not the point.

Lovers of drama will want to judge this performance for themselves. Hopkins is the classical actor who in the last 40 years has gone furthest into the lion's mouth of Hollywood and this Lear is very ambitiously packaged by Colin Callender, the man who taught HBO the lessons of longf-orm television from the BBC. It is so watchable the kids will be able to look at it – and ponder for themselves the mystery of the man who loses his wits through his love of daughters, good and bad.

It may not be as good as the great Paul Scofield Lear of 1971, directed by Peter Brook and shot in Ingmar Bergman-style black and white by the great Sven Nykvist – but it's more biddable.

The idea of that Australian audiences are denied the chance to watch it, or having it indefinitely postponed, shows contempt.

[This King Lear] is so watchable the kids will be able to look at it.

The same is true of A Very English Scandal (which screened in Britain in three parts between May 20 and June 3) in which Grant plays the politician who came undone over the boys, and which yields a performance so powerful and so credible that the journalist Charles Moore (Margaret Thatcher's biographer who, as a young man, knew Thorpe) says the resemblance is uncanny.

Grant has always been an underrated actor because he has the rapid lightness of a great high comedian like Rex Harrison. Many Brits are saying he captures the ferocious arrogance and a sense of entitlement that even awed the scrubbers at Eton.

Apparently A Very English Scandal, with its dark, true-crime thriller plot, is a winner.

The question, though, is when will Australia – one of most abiding and significant markets for British television in the world – find out for itself.

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