While Hollywood worries about how to portray personal relationships in the AIDS era, CBS sees one solution: TV movies based on Barbara Cartland books.
“People don’t roll about naked in my books,” Cartland says. “Kissing is only allowed one time. I do allow them to go to bed if they’re married, but it’s all very wonderful and the moon beams.”
Cartland, Britain’s “queen of romance,” has churned out 452 novels at last count. At 86, she still produces a book every two weeks. The Guinness Book of Records ranks her as “today’s best-selling authoress.”
“Romance has found its time,” says British playwright Terence Feely, who has begun adapting Cartland’s books for television. “Steamy sex is on its way out because of the AIDS crisis, but we have to have male/female relationships.”
Feely’s first Cartland adaptation is “A Hazard of Hearts,” a tale of lust, murder, despair and, of course, love. The project has a cast more commonly associated with “Masterpiece Theatre” than formula romance: Eileen Atkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Edward Fox, Marcus Gilbert, Stewart Granger, Anna Massey, Christopher Plummer and Diana Rigg. If it’s successful when it airs this fall, others will follow.
“A Hazard of Hearts,” written in 1948, is typical Cartland: a young woman (Bonham Carter) becomes a pawn in the game of life when her father (Plummer) loses her and his estate in a gambling wager. The winner is the lecherous Lord Wrotham (Fox). He in turn loses her to a tall, dark and handsome Marquis (Gilbert), who sends her to live with his mother (Rigg).
“This was my first costume book,” Cartland says, “so I put in everything--highwaymen, jewels, the kitchen stove,” plus the traditional chest-thrusting hero and virginal heroine. Everything takes place in 1810.
Thus it is that Bonham Carter (who starred in “A Room with a View”) is poised at the top of a magnificent staircase, ready to descend virginally. On her right stands a gray Great Dane almost as tall as she is. On her left stands her maid (Massey), holding a lighted candelabrum.
The setting is Wrotham Park, a stately mansion on the outskirts of London favored by British filmmakers. It’s one of numerous locations used in the two-hour telefilm. “There’s no way anyone in Hollywood could afford to build what we’ve got on screen,” producer Albert Fennell brags, referring to the availability of sumptuous shooting sites in England.
Fennell, a veteran British producer with such credits as “The Avengers” and “The Professionals,” hopes Cartland films will become as much of a TV staple as Agatha Christie films. “We’d be delighted if CBS wanted 26 in a year,” he says, “but we’d be very happy with an order for 13.”
Fennell and his production partner John Hough, who is directing “Hazard,” have been trying to get the series off the ground for 10 years. That’s when Fennell first bought a film option on Cartland’s works. “There was no interest in Britain or America at that time,” he says. “In fact, people rather laughed at the idea.”
But attitudes are changing. “Sales of my books in America have gone up since AIDS,” claims Cartland, a national institution in Britain and step-grandmother to Princess Diana. “Everybody has gone through this thing where they must be naked and rolling about. We couldn’t get any filthier. People’s morals have gone.”
In 1979, during a period when Fennell’s option had run out on Cartland’s work, American producer Ed Friendly tested the waters by filming Cartland’s “The Flame Is Love” for NBC. The experiment was not a success. “I’d rather forget about that film,” Cartland says now. “It was frightfully badly cast.”
This time, Cartland has been involved from the start. “I thought the script was very good,” she says. “I only made two or three alterations. For instance, it said, ‘The villain throws her down on the floor of the carriage and tries to rape her.’ You can’t get on the floor of a carriage. I’ve been in a carriage. There’s just about room for your feet. So I said you must try and kiss her against the wall.”
Terence Feely rewrote accordingly. “I simplified and intensified the story,” he says. “I’m not claiming to have improved her work. Barbara is a novelist. I’m a dramatist. The two processes are different.
“Barbara’s books have got strong pace and character. You build it from there. I’ve injected humor. The best way to make characters real is give them humor.”
Considering the popularity of Cartland’s books, surprisingly few of the people involved with “A Hazard of Hearts” had read any of them before filming started. “I bought six and read them in one night,” Feely boasts.
“I read this one over the course of a weekend,” says Marcus Gilbert, 28, who plays the hero. “I actually enjoyed it, although it wasn’t as if I couldn’t put it down. The sexiest thing that happens in this is a kiss, although a Barbara Cartland kiss is incredibly suggestive.”
The recipient of the kiss, Bonham Carter, 20, has never read a Cartland novel. “Perhaps I’ll grow into them,” she says. “They must have something of worth if so many people read them.”
Like other members of the cast, Bonham Carter leaped at the opportunity to be in “A Hazard of Hearts.” “As an actor, you can’t afford to be really snooty,” she says. Before this offer came along, she played Don Johnson’s girlfriend, a drug-addicted doctor, in a two-part “Miami Vice” episode.
Bonham Carter doesn’t see a great deal of difference between “A Hazard of Hearts” and her earlier film, “A Room with a View.” “In some ways ‘A Room with a View’ is pure romance,” she observes. “It’s not too far off from Barbara Cartland realms. Both films have this great kiss. But ‘A Room with a View’ was written by E. M. Forster, who has intellectual credibility.”
Anna Massey, who is spending her summer evenings playing opposite Anthony Hopkins in the National Theater’s production of “King Lear,” describes “A Hazard of Hearts” as “quality hokum that’s rather well paid. It’s fun to be able to do this and then go do subsidized theater. However, if I only did things like this, I’d go bananas.
“This will be as good as these tales allow themselves to be. Of course I’ll watch it. But the wonderful thing about a video machine is its fast-forward button.”