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
British Drama

House of Cards

Francis Urquhart - Wikipedia

After a gold-plated bollocking by Margaret Thatcher, political advisor Michael Dobbs had more than a few drinks and scribbled down two letters: F.U.. That experience planted the seeds of what became his acclaimed political novel about vile British politician Francis Urquhart, which was later adapted by BBC television: 1990’s House of Cards.

Andrew Davies’ scintillating script makes many changes to Dobb’s novel, but the structure of the plot is similar: Thatcher is gone and the resulting leadership fight is won by the well-meaning but ineffectual Henry Collingridge (David Lyon). Our guide to these events is Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson, who frequently speaks directly to the audience with seductive effect). Promised a cabinet post, F.U. is enraged when he is not promoted. He decides to destroy Collingridge by any means necessary, and “puts a bit of stick about” with a vengeance. His devious plan pays off, spurring a new leadership fight, but this time around, with the encouragement of his ambitious and equally ruthless wife, he realizes that the top job is within his own grasp.

BBC hit it for six on this series, with inspired casting, acting, direction and production. Despite a 3 1/2 hour running time it’s easy to gobble up House of Cards in one or two sittings.

Bina007 Movie Reviews: HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part three

Dobbs worked for Thatcher, and therefore clearly didn’t have a problem with strong women. That is reflected in multiple complex, powerful female characters in the story. Susannah Harker is very good as Mattie Storin, an ambitious journalist on a Telegraph-like newspaper (which is owned by a Murdoch parody well-played by Kenny Ireland). Storin is manipulated by Urquhart and manipulates him back, struggling with one hell of a father complex along the way. Diane Fletcher is even better as Urquhart’s wife Elizabeth, played less so as a Lady MacBeth than as an equal partner in crime. I also liked Alphonsia Emmanuel (known to American audiences mainly for another of my recommendations, Peter’s Friends) as the clever-in-work-but-foolish-in-love assistant to the cocaine-addicted ex-footballer who runs the political party’s publicity operation (Miles Anderson, in a believable and sympathetic performance).

But the heart of this movie is Ian Richardson, whose work I have praised many times (see for example here, here, here and here). You could almost call House of Cards “Dracula goes to Westminster” for he gives a vampiric performance mixing surface charm and urbanity with a bloodthirsty, remorseless drive for dominance. Many people who watched this mini-series on BBC wondered how they ended up rooting at times for such an awful person; that is the genius of Richardson at work.