Something Neat VI: Dear Enemy and Dr. MacRae

Update:  Click here to see what Dr. MacRae really looked like.
Note: The photos of Patrick Malahide are not from Dear Enemy. They are from After the War: Friends & Enemies, in which he starred as the utterly intriguing and aptly named Mr. Quarles.

Dear Enemy: Release This on DVD Now!

Just imagine it's 1915.

Just pretend it’s 1915.

In 1981, Patrick Malahide played Dr. Robin “Sandy” MacRae, the eponymous enemy in Dear Enemy.

Dear Enemy was a Granada produced mini-series which aired on ITV.  It is based on the novel of the same name by Jean Webster.  Having no access to the series, it is not on DVD or even VHS, I (and RFodchuk) read the book.  Oh!  And what a good book it is! ♥♥♥

Published in 1915, it is the sequel to Webster’s earlier novel, Daddy Long-Legs, which I have not read (yet), but that doesn’t matter as Dear Enemy stands on its own perfectly well.

Vanessa Knox-Mawr as Sallie.  Image links to bookseller.

Vanessa Knox-Mawr as Sallie. Image links to bookseller.

Basically, the story is about a young, independent woman, Sallie McBride (Vanessa Knox-Mawr), who has agreed
to temporarily takeover the vacated superintendency of the John Grier Home orphanage. The entire novel consists solely of Sallie’s letters to various individuals.  Mostly she writes to her friend Judy Pendleton whose husband Jervis is President of the orphanage.  She also writes to her congressman boyfriend Gordon Hallock.

The other person she writes to, and very often about, is her “enemy” Dr. Robin MacRae.  She has a couple of nicknames for him: Enemy and Sandy.  Enemy, because they don’t exactly hit it off (though, Robin kind of thinks they mostly get on just fine and doesn’t like being called Enemy) and Sandy because he has sandy colored hair.

I don’t want to give too much away concerning the plot and details, as I think the book is well worth reading;  its epistolary style of letters makes it a very easy and brisk read so I highly recommend it.  Sallie is passionate about the well being of her “chicks” and that is a trait she has in common with Dr. MacRae.  They are both intensely dedicated to their work and improving the lives of the children in their care.

It is  very funny book!  At no point does Sallie become maudlin and the author does not try  to tug at heart strings or anything sappy like that.  Sallie has a flippant and sarcastic sense of humor and the orphaned children are not off-limits from her jaundiced eye.  She loves her little chicks (as she calls them), but she recognizes (and sometimes laughs at) their shortcomings just as quickly as their virtues, and she is quick to try and turn a shortcoming (such as willful mischievousness) into virtues (usefulness and independence).  I must say the humor and steadfast refusal to simper made the book so much more enjoyable.

Dr. Robin “Sandy” MacRae: Taciturn Scottish Perfection.

Oh!  He looks taciturn!

Oh! He looks taciturn!

But let’s get to Dr. Robin MacRae, the character played (perfectly, I’m sure) by Patrick Malahide.  Robin, aka Sandy, is first described thus:

He is tall and thinnish, with sandy hair and cold gray eyes. During the hour he spent in my society (and I was very sprightly) no shadow of a smile so much as lightened the straight line of his mouth. Can a shadow lighten? Maybe not; but, anyway, what IS the matter with the man? Has he committed some remorseful crime, or is his taciturnity due merely to his natural Scotchness? He’s as companionable as a granite tombstone!

See?  He’s already perfect 🙂  Not only that, he’s completely obsessed with insanity and eugenics.  OK, the eugenics stuff sounds potentially controversial and it is, at times,  off-putting, but the book is from 1915 so I couldn’t expect modern mores and attitudes to be prevalent.  And, the upside to the admittedly distressing subject matter is that Dr. MacRae is fascinated by Henry J. Goddard’s book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness which at least makes for a very interesting read on Wikipedia. Besides, Robin has his reasons for being interested in such a morose subject…

Sallie is completely befuddled by the doctor.  He is constantly in her thoughts as she struggles to understand him, admires his tireless dedication (seriously, he is always there to help at the drop of a hat), and imagines dark deeds from his Scotch past.  He has to be so stern, secretive and broody for a reason, right?  What better than a darkly gothic crime?

But, he’s not always filled with broody Scotch taciturnity.  He occasionally expresses a fondness for Scottish literature, songs and poetry.    He frees a little girl whose mouth has encased a doorknob with a buttered shoehorn, then dubs her “Muckle-mouthed Meg”.  That scene was when I realized Dear Enemy is pretty much a classic 🙂

He lives with his housekeeper, Maggie McGurk (bit of a pill, she thinks Sallie is aiming to marry the doctor) who isn’t keeping the best care of her charge.   She isn’t a very good cook, so he always has a lean hungry manner about him.  Fortunately, Sallie has a ready supply of buttered toast, muffins, tea and scones (Robin likes his carbs) on hand for his visits.  But, she isn’t the perfect hostess:

Meanwhile he is very grateful for something to eat, but oh, so funny in his attempts at social grace! At first he would hold a cup of tea in one hand, a plate of muffins in the other, and then search blankly for a third hand to eat them with. Now he has solved the problem. He turns in his toes and brings his knees together; then he folds his napkin into a long, narrow wedge that fills the crack between them, thus forming a very workable pseudo lap; after that he sits with tense muscles until the tea is drunk. I suppose I ought to provide a table, but the spectacle of Sandy with his toes turned in is the one gleam of amusement that my day affords.

Furthermore, he doesn’t even bother picking out his own clothes.  That is far too unimportant a task for a man with a mind and work ethic like his.  Instead he leaves that also to Mrs. McGurk, a decision that has its consequences:

He was dressed in a mustard-colored homespun, with a dash of green and a glint of yellow in the weave, a “heather mixture” calculated to add life to a dull Scotch moor. Purple socks and a red tie, with an amethyst pin, completed the picture. Clearly, your paragon of a doctor is not going to be of much assistance in pulling up the esthetic tone of this establishment.

Now, each episode is apparently 30 minutes long, and some changes have been made from the book.  That is understandable as a certain scene, alas – the best one, would likely have required a heftier budget than what would have been available at the time.  Also, the episode length suggests it might have actually been intended for younger viewers, but that doesn’t faze me as the book itself is rather “young adult” in nature.

Episode Synopsis from the BFI Film & TV Database Website:

My thoughts, which contain lots of book spoilers, are in (parenthesis)

Make that 1905.

Make that 1905.

  1. The Enemy:  In 1905, Sallie McBride becomes superintendent of an orphanage and tries to brighten up the place.  (In the book, it was set closer to 1915.  Sallie references being in school during 1910.)
  2. A Breath of Fresh Air: New superintendent Sallie McBride continues her campaign to cheer up the grim orphanage.  (Sounds about right.  Sallie’s main goal was to brighten the place & its little charges up, later she worked on educating improving the future’s of the children. There is a cute scene, in the book, where Sallie & MacRae have a modest dispute over the red flannel petticoats the girls have to wear.  Sallie hates them, but MacRae thinks they are “cheerful and warm and hygienic.” Sallie wins!.)
  3. The Cod Liver Oil War: Sallie’s problems include a battle between Dr Macrae and Miss Snaith over the administering of cod liver oil. Totally exasperated, Sallie decides to resign.  (The Cod Liver Oil War was hilarious. Poor Miss Snaith, I did pity her.  Sallie had not intention to resign over that specifically. In fact, she handled the War pretty well. )
  4. The Real Macrae: Orphans arriving at the home bring out an affectionate streak in Dr Macrae. Sallie McBride is delighted to find that her worst enemy is finally becoming a good friend.  (Yeah, turns out Sandy is just a big, ol’ softie.  He gets several scenes where he shows a very gentle, tender and caring side when it comes to the orphans.)
  5. A Question of Marriage: Superintendent Sallie McBride has an unexpected picnic treat.  (Sallie does have a sweet picnic with Sandy, and I hope that is what they are referring to.  Marriage doesn’t quite enter into it, but I think focusing on romance sounds like an improvement, actually.  I only wish the book had built that up a little more and a little slower.)
  6. Together: Sallie discovers that Dr Macrae is married. The millionaire Bretlands arrive to choose a child to foster.  (Only Mr. Bretland shows up in the book.  I disliked the Bretlands for reasons I won’t waffle on about.  He wanted a sweet little girl named Allegra, but she was there with her two older brothers who did not want her to leave them.  MacRae also bonded with the girl and was adamant that she remain with her brothers also.  MacRae’s marriage reveal explains his interest in insanity and his attachment to Allegra.)
  7. The Friend: Sallie must decide how serious she is about Dr Macrae when Gordon Hancock offers marriage. Heroism is needed when Allegra is stuck up a tree.  (Gordon was Sallie’s politician boyfriend and a bit of a pill.  Allegra never got stuck in a tree in the book, she was only three!  Instead the orphanage caught fire and MacRae rescued her.  Awwww, I so would have loved to have seen that.  I have to say the tree swap is a total let down 🙁 )

I would love to see this get a DVD release.  I suppose the production values might not be stellar by today’s standards, but it is a lovely story and I would genuinely love to see Patrick Malahide’s take on a character as complex, exasperating, admirable and loveable as Dr. MacRae.

Further reading: 

  • Stone Soup Books has an excellent write-up supporting the novel along with a plea for a re-release of the series.
  • Gutenberg Press has some e-reader friendly versions.
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34 Responses to Something Neat VI: Dear Enemy and Dr. MacRae

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