‘Miaow, miaow, miaow.’ Inside Robert and Ghislaine Maxwell’s toe-curling relationship

TV review: The House of Maxwell is about a larger-than-life-father and disgraced daughter

The most recent season of HBO's Succession was a let-down until its Shakespearean final twist, in which Shiv was shivved by milquetoast husband Tom. But for those whose appetite for dysfunctional media dynasties remains un-sated, the latest in a, well, succession of documentaries about Robert and Ghislaine Maxwell ticks the box satisfyingly.

The big takeaway from The House of Maxwell (BBC Two, Monday) is that, when it comes to familial weirdness, Succession's fictional Roys have nothing on the Maxwells. Recalling a phone conversation between Robert Maxwell and his favourite child, Ghislaine, Maxwell's former secretary Carol Bragoli, lifts the lid on a father-daughter relationship so toe-curlingly bonkers it can only have been real.

“Miaow,” she remembers Mirror-group mogul Maxwell saying. “Miaow, miaow, miaow,” responded Ghislaine. Not even Logan and Shiv Roy could carry off a two-hander so absurd.

The story of the Maxwells’ ascension and decline is stranger than fiction. Which may be why the British documentary industry finds it so irresistible. This latest film about Robert, who drowned mysteriously in 1991, and Ghislaine, who was last year found guilty of sex trafficking charges, seeks to join the dots between larger than-life-father and disgraced daughter.

Robert and Ghislaine seemed to inhabit their own bizarre microclimate. Maxwell, born in what is now Ukraine and a former double agent for the KGB and MI5, had become obsessed in his later years with Rupert Murdoch and was determined to usurp him as Britain's most notorious press baron. It was a fixation that eventually led down the path to self-destruction.

Ghislaine, meanwhile, was a toxic daddy’s girl. Where her father was a bruiser with Bond villain charisma, she was a charmingly irrepressible. And she thrived as his glamorous ambassador as he tried to expand his empire to the US by purchasing the New York Daily News.

None of this is revelatory. And yet it is fascinating to watch old footage of Maxwell, who got a kick out of having the British establishment fawn and hang on his every word. The only flash of humanity is when visiting a Holocaust memorial in Israel, at which the repressed horror of the obliteration of his Jewish family at the hands of the Nazis comes rushing back and he is reduced to tears. "Not a single Jew was left," he sobs. "It was as if we never existed."

Recordings of his lackeys panicking after he goes missing off the Canary Islands are equally revealing (Nixon had nothing on Robert Maxwell when it came to the paranoid taping of colleagues without their permission).

He'd rifled the Mirror Group pension fund in order to pay for his strategy of aggressive growth. And, with the chickens coming home to roost, suddenly he was gone. "Is this happening?" wondered one executive who had awakened to find himself in a living nightmare.

Ghislaine's horror-show relationship with Jeffrey Epstein will be covered more thoroughly in later episodes. But if the first instalment doesn't delve into the particulars of her arrest and incarceration, it powerfully conveys the depths to which she has sunk.

The House of Maxwell begins with true crime blogger Scott Sharp walking to the Brooklyn prison at which Ghislaine was detained during her trial. The looming concrete structure shines balefully in the withering heat.

And as Sharp approaches you hear the voices: thousands of inmates venting in anger and misery. It is a chorus from hell itself and a reminder of how much Ghislaine has lost and how throughly the Maxwells have slipped from grace.

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