Daniel Vernon, “House of Maxwell (Episode 1)” (2022)
First in a three-part series purporting to examine and connect the scandals surrounding British newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell (1923 – 1991) and his daughter Ghislaine, this episode gets off to an underwhelming and ultimately boring start. Structured around Maxwell’s sensational and bizarre death in which he disappeared from his yacht in November 1991, the episode goes through various flashbacks focusing on particular significant periods in Maxwell’s life, not necessarily in chronological order. Various interviewees provide information about these periods in which Maxwell established himself as a publisher, became a Member of Parliament and ensconced himself in Britain’s political and media establishment. The episode also dwells on his family, in particular his sons who were to take over his media empire after his death and on Ghislaine, without providing many details as to when the children were born or even when he married Elizabeth and how many children they ultimately had. One interviewee mentions that there were tragic early childhood deaths in the family but the episode provides no details as to what these were.
The episode is visually appealing with one gorgeous overhead bird’s-eye view of ocean waves lapping a beach early on but otherwise the information given is vague and presented in a non-linear / non-chronological order. This is bound to infuriate viewers who would reasonably expect the information about Maxwell to be presented in a clear narrative so that a context can be discerned. Without that context, the information appears to be little more than fragments of salacious gossip. Viewers will be left scratching their heads as to how a poor Czech Jewish boy managed to escape Nazi German invasion, come to Britain to establish himself in the newspaper publishing business and acquire enormous wealth and influence, so much so that he could (and would) challenge Rupert Murdoch as Britain’s No 1 media mogul.
There is some mention of Maxwell’s links to British and Israeli intelligence agencies but this information is not treated in much detail. Viewers may surmise Maxwell’s work for intel agencies may underpin his later rise to prominence as a media publisher and politician. Ultimately this episode is an unsatisfying and superficial treatment of a significant and perhaps sinister personality in the British elite in the later half of the 20th century. I expect that subsequent episodes focusing on the collapse of Maxwell’s media empire and his theft of his companies’ pension funds and on Ghislaine Maxwell’s association with US financier Jeffrey Epstein and the sex-trafficking operation they ran will be similarly shallow.
While it is true that the rich and powerful follow their own rules while setting another set of rules for others less privileged to follow, this episode – and perhaps the series generally – does not question why such a hierarchy, with all the hypocrisy that is involved, should be allowed to continue.