Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Classics that Time Forgot

I was reflecting on the "Classic Serial" which used to be the staple of Sunday afternoons around tea-time. During the early eighties, this underwent something of a revival, when the Doctor Who team of Barry Letts as Producer and Terrance Dicks as Script Editor moved onto the show. They demonstrated that they were as capable as taking on "classics" as science fiction, and during their tenure, some very watchable serials were produced.

There were the odd "duff" serials. "Alice in Wonderland" was over reliant on poor quality CGI (an overreliance on which was one of Barry Lett's few failings), and really did not work well. The Tom Baker Sherlock Holmes was solid, but not inspiring; Tom Baker was never as watchable as Holmes as Jeremy Brett, or even Peter Cushing. Terence Rigby was a dull Watson.

One of my favourites, but sadly not yet out on DVD was "Goodbye Mr Chips". With Roy Marsden as the schoolteacher, Mr Chipping, this was a superb production, and one to rival Robert Donat's film portrayal. The ITV version with Martin Clunes was also good, but not as good as this four part serial.

The Pickwick Papers starred Nigel Stock as Mr Pickwick, with Clive Swift providing wonderful comic support as Mr Tupman. The other supporting roles were also excellent with Patrick Malahide, Colin Douglas and Milton Johns all playing part of Mr Pickwick's entourage. With 12 episodes, this somewhat rambling narrative never lost the viewer's interest, and can be seen as the literary equivalent of a soap opera, with comedy, drama and tragedy all interwoven. Phil Daniels as Sam Weller steals the show. Carl Davis provided music. A classy classic.

Timothy Dalton, once James Bond, and most recently President Rassilon in Doctor Who, starred as Mr Rochester in this superb production, with Zelah Clarke providing good support as Jane Eyre (1983). At ten episodes, this was still a tight and strong narrative, and allowed room for the characters to breath, in a way that just does not happen in any of the film or mini-series versions. This is available on DVD, and I would recommend it. It received a BAFTA.

"Beau Geste" was a good example of what can be achieved on a low budget! Having seen the story spoofed (wonderfully in Carry On, Follow that Camel), the original story still has some power, with Benedict Taylor as the erstwhile Beau Geste, Anthony Calf in the lesser role as Digby, with a young Jonathon Morris (later to achieve fame in "Bread") as John. John Forgeham does a good turn as the sadistic Sergeant. The story begins with the blazing remains of a Fort in the desert, where all the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion are dead. The patrol who encounter this try to make sense of the mystery, and it is only in the flashbacks that we learn of the tragic tale of a missing jewel, and the Geste brothers.

When Barry Letts gave up producing, Terrance Dicks took over as producer, bringing a touch of the modern to the classic serial, with a sparkling production of ""Vanity Fair", and an excellent "Bratt Farrar". There were still some old stalwarts, like David Copperfield, where Simon Callow as Mr Micawber stole scenes.

But probably the best production that I can remember under his tenure was the "The Diary of Anne Frank", which still has not been bettered by later productions. Emrys James starred as Otto Frank, with a young Katharine Schlesinger bringing an adolescent vitality to the part of Anne that has never been equalled. It is, unfortunately, not available on DVD, although I really think it deserves to be.

Perhaps it is time for the BBC to mine their back catalogue of stories, and release a few more of these to DVD!


David Rotherham said...

I would like to see the Treasure Island that had Alfred Burke as Long John Silver again. Not the first, nor the last dramatisation of the book, but the best directed by a mile: It really brought Stephenson's characters to life, especially the empty pomp of the Squire's figurehead leadership under the puppetry of the Doctor, and Silver's psychopathic swings between amiable charm and ruthless menace.

TonyTheProf said...

That was the 1977 version

It was adapted brilliantly by John Lucarroti (Dr Who's best historicals - Marco Polo, The Aztecs) and produced by the late Barry Letts.

Patrick Troughton played Israel Hands, and the rest of the cast is like a whose who of well known character actors - Anthony Bate, Stephen Greif, Talfryn Thomas, Brian Croucher, Edward Peel, Jack Watson, David Collings, Thorley Walters, Paul Copley, Clive Wood