Categories
Drama

To Serve Them All My Days

The classic Dickens novels usually end with the central character finally finding a proper place in the world after years of hardship and misadventures. R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days takes the opposite approach of having a character with a tragic backstory find his proper place on the very first page, and spend the rest of his life realizing it. In 1980, BBC tapped Andrew Davies (later to pen another of my recommendations, House of Cards) to adapt the novel to the small screen, and the result is a fine 13 part miniseries that I recommend to you this week.

The series opens with shell-shocked, limping, wan, Welshman David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine) returning from the horrors of the trenches to apply for a teaching post at Bamfylde boarding school in Devon. The wily, gentle, headmaster Algy Herries (endearingly played by Frank Middlemass) sees potential in the traumatized young man and hires him as a teacher. Surrounded by better educated, better born, men, David initially struggles with that peculiarly Welsh working class admixture of pride and insecurity. But he slowly begins to find his footing, largely because he develops positive relationships with Algy as well as with a lonely, cynical, yet also compassionate senior housemaster (Alan MacNaughtan). He also grows to understand and be respected by the boys, despite not sharing their class background nor their politics.

David’s life is also shaped profoundly by three women he loves over the years, each of whom is emblematic of a different historical age. Beth Marwood is the perfect Victorian helpmate (indeed too perfect, she is the most flat character in the series unfortunately for Belinda Lang, who does her best). She is followed by the sexually liberated Julia, who has a flapper sensibility even though her horizons are limited by the social and occupational constraints placed on women in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Christine Forster arrives in a David’s life as a powerful person in her own right both psychologically and politically, facing down sexism while running for Parliament.

This series really grew on me episode by episode. In part that was due to Duttine’s layered performance as a lost, angry, and tentative person becoming over many years completely at home at Bamflyde, invested in life, and deservedly confident of his abilities. I also appreciated that some characters who started out as stereotypes, like Carter the failed soldier turned teacher (Neil Stacy) and the icy martinet headmaster Alcock (Charles Kay) became better-rounded over time. But the most rewarding feature of the series — as in virtually all drama — were the rich human relationships brought alive by a worthy script, directors, and cast.

The series isn’t perfect. The 12th episode features a subplot about anti-Semitism that is disappointingly carmelized and should have been dropped, one of the revelations in the final episode isn’t set up well enough in earlier episodes to have the desired impact, and throughout the series isn’t much to look at in terms of sets or camerawork. But it’s almost impossible to put 11 hours of film together and not have some weak spots.

To Serve Them All My Days is the sort of literate, solid entertainment upon which the BBC’s reputation for high quality drama rests. Make yourself a pot of tea and get watching.

Categories
Action/Adventure British

The Sandbaggers

Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the subject of this essay: The Sandbaggers.

Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).

The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.

The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.

As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another of my recommendations, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.

As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.

The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.