Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Clark

Archie on ITVX review: Jason Isaacs is a wizard, conjuring the spirit of troubled idol Cary Grant

Trying to recreate Cary Grant on screen is a brave – some might say foolhardy – undertaking. So the creators, and stars, have wisely decided to make a show about Archibald Leach instead, the man behind the matinee idol, and it has paid off handsomely.

Grant is one of the most enduring movie stars from Hollywood's golden age. Dashing, debonair, always ready with a quip, he scored hit after hit – from Bringing Up Baby to His Girl Friday, Notorious to North by Northwest – until, without warning, he stepped away from it all.

Yet that persona masked an extraordinarily complicated man, one born out of a terrible childhood forged in poverty and abuse, which would shape him throughout his life. And as he says in the opening five minutes of Archie, Grant was "a character" created out of necessity. "I made the perfect man in order to survive."

It opens with Grant, played by Jason Isaacs, rattling around his huge mansion in LA's Benedict Canyon, desperate for company. The voice over (in that extraordinary, unique mid-Atlantic accent) tells us that while he should have been happy, he resolutely was not. And he seeks to change that by setting up a meeting with a young actress.

It flashes forward to him in his 80s doing a public Q&A session, before heading back to Archie Leach's early life, in turn of the 20th century Bristol. There his parents are at each other's throats: his alcoholic father is spending all the money and his mother is distracted and distant, mourning the death of his older brother. Archie regularly goes hungry and is bullied by other children for his poverty.

The show, which repeatedly leaps backwards and forward in time, gallops through the extremes of a life, from the young Archie's mother being taken away to a sanitorium – shortly after, he's informed that she has died – and being abandoned by his father, to joining a troupe of performers, heading to America, and with the help of stars from comedian George Burns to Mae West, making it big. It is then, with his star on the rise, that his past catches up with him in the form of a shocking revelation that turns his life upside down.

Archie is anchored around Grant's shortlived marriage (his fourth) to Dyan Cannon – the young actress he pursued after seeing her on TV – in the Sixties, and is partly based on her memoir Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant. It is during this short union, just three years, that he became a father, to Jennifer Grant, a seminal moment after having rejected fatherhood for so long.

Both Cannon and Jennifer Grant are executive producers, but this is no hagiography. In fact it may be the first on-screen attempt to really explore Grant's life away from the camera, which includes his habitual LSD usage, his fluid sexuality, and a relationship with Cannon that became increasingly toxic, due to his insistent desire for control.

There is a lot of material to marshal here, but creator and writer Jeff Pope, who was Oscar nominated for Philomena, pulls it together expertly. He is ably supported by director Paul Andrew Williams, whose work includes the recent Stephen Graham drama The Walk-in – this show looks a million dollars even as it skips from the mansions of Hollywood, to Edwardian Bristol and New York of the Twenties.

The cast is universally strong from Kara Tointon, who plays Grant's mother in his early life, a brittle, gaslight woman consumed by grief, to Laura Aikman as Cannon, reluctantly drawn into Grant's world, then struggling to forge her own identity within it. And no show has ever suffered by having Harriet Walter in it.

But it's Isaacs that really makes it work – he really is one of this country's great, underappreciated screen actors. Here, if you get Grant, or rather Leach, wrong the whole thing falls apart. The look and the accent takes a bit of adjusting to, but give yourself over to it and it just works. Isaacs is a hugely charismatic performer and it's no surprise that the show comes alive when he's on screen (a number of other actors play the young Archie). No, he's not Cary Grant, but he has created a version you can absolutely believe in (even if the prosthetics for the brief time he's in his 80s are a bit wobbly). Go with it.

Laura Aikman as Dyan Cannon (ITV)

This is a show about the identities people build to protect themselves from past trauma, and also about how celebrities (and everyone else) build idealised visions of themselves even as their private lives spin out of control – which couldn't be more relevant in the social media age.

In Archie, Grant is a man trying to avoid his demons and looking for love and validation in all the wrong places. The question it asks is: did he find peace? A hugely powerful moment is in the only real clip of Grant it uses after the credits have rolled. It's not the acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar or a clip from his most glorious, beautiful prime, but it's a simple home video of him playing with his daughter. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

Yes, some of the facts have been massaged, but in the service of telling the story of a hugely complex life over four hours it doesn't feel cynical. If you're worried about that sort of thing turn off the telly and log onto Wikipedia instead.

Many will be brought in by their love for Cary Grant's films (I was) and there has been some push back from fans online about a series looking at the darker side of this idol. It doesn't take away from the great body of work he left, and it gives us a little more understanding of what was going on behind his eyes during those unforgettable performances. In the process, it brings us just a little closer to the real man behind that dazzling smile, his damage and his joy. And for that it's thoroughly welcome.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.