After the relative disappointment of He Knew He Was Right, it was probably a bit of a risk to try another Trollope adaptation so soon. Still, what are you going to do when the DVD gets to the library unexpectedly quickly? The Barchester Chronicles is a seven-part series based on the first two of Trollope’s Barchester novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers. The first two episodes concentrate on the former with the other five devoted to the latter – the question is, of course, are they any good?
The initial signs were not encouraging. The series dates from 1982, and this is painfully obvious in many regards. The acting was a bit wooden at times, and some of the camera work looked like it had been done by my daughter messing around with my digital camera. Despite the excellent work by Donald Pleasance, playing the titular Warden Septimus Harding, I wasn’t overly impressed by the first two episodes. Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly seemed overly aggressive, and the continuity didn’t exactly flow. To be fair, I think The Warden is probably not the easiest book to bring to the small screen, at times consisting mainly of large amounts of information related by the author himself, rather than his creations. Still, I was a little reluctant to move on to the second part of the series…
…but I’m very glad I did. Barchester Towers is a wonderful book, and it contains a lot more action than its predecessor. In these episodes, the Archdeacon’s fire is both justified and welcome, and Mr. Harding is again wonderfully played, if slightly more playful and sarcastic than he comes across in the book. However, it is the new arrivals in Barchester that make the series come to life, especially the three new residents of the Bishop’s palace. The weak Bishop Proudie is played by Clive Swift, who basically plays the same role as he does as the hen-pecked husband in the BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances, keeping his head down in the vain hope of a peaceful life.
This is denied to him, of course, by the loathsome Mrs. Proudie (played wonderfully by Geraldine McEwan) and his odious chaplain Obadiah Slope, this role being filled by a certain Alan Rickman… Yes, Severus Snape himself (with a haircut) is the slimy clergyman who oozes across our screens, attempting to ingratiate himself with the local ladies and influence the bishop behind Mrs. Proudie’s back. This was Rickman’s breakthrough role, and it’s one he attacks with great gusto 🙂
All in all, The Barchester Chronicles was great fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. If you love the novels, you’ll get a lot out of the series, but I would imagine that the casual viewer would wonder what all the fuss is about. That’s if the camera work hasn’t already given them motion sickness…
…a series I can recommend without reservation, however, is the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. Whoever had the idea of making it into a sixteen-part series, fourteen of which run for only half an hour, is a genius. Whatever some whingers may have said about it, the soap opera format is perfect for the book, reminding the viewer of the serialised format of Dickens’ – and many Victorian writers’ – work.
One of the strong points of this series was its casting, especially important when you consider the strength in numbers of the ensemble. To match this strength in numbers with quality must have been a formidable task, but it was satisfied amazingly well. All of the main characters were excellent, but if I were to single anyone out, it would probably have to be Charles Dance as Mr. Tulkinghorne, the arrogant, sinister lawyer who threatens to unravel poor Lady Dedlock’s secrets. Alun Evan’s turn as Inspector Bucket would have to run him a close second though 😉
As mentioned in my previous post, Gillian Anderson later went on to play Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, but at the time of being given the part of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she was still best known for her role in The X-Files. Hence, there were a few annoyed voices around at the time, wondering why on earth an American actress had been cast as this quintessentially English noblewoman. She nails it though, playing the role of the doomed, imposing woman to perfection. And if ever there was an inspiration for a song, it is Lady Dedlock. Believe me – everywhere she goes, she always takes the (bad) weather with her…
I can only think of one major disappointment, and that’s the soppy ending, common to most adaptations of classic literature, unfortunately. That aside though, Bleak House is a wonderful series, one I’d advise anyone to watch. It lasts for eight hours in total, and I got through it all in less than a week, desperate to go for just one more episode every time the credits starting rolling on the one I was watching. Do you need any more convincing? 😉