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A Wonderful Series -- Whether You've Read The Books Or Not
I have read several of Peter Mayle's books about living in Provence. And I have seen the BBC mini-series, "A Year In Provence," starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan.
To say that the BBC mini-series was "based on" the books by Peter Mayle is inaccurate. Mayle's books could not be directly adapted to television, because they consist mostly of small vignettes about living in Provence. Most of the stories in the books are written in the style of journal entries, and only last a few pages.
It is more accurate to say that the mini-series is "inspired by" Peter Mayle's books. The mini-series perfectly captures the spirit of Mayle's books by giving us a series of short, half-hour vignettes about living in Provence.
The story: Peter Mayle (John Thaw), a middle-aged advertising executive, retires from his London job and moves to a house in the Provencial region of southern France with his wife Annie (Lindsay Duncan). They want to live the "good life" -- but they quickly discover that, like all good things, the "good life" must be continuously earned, even in a paradise like Provence.
Each of the twelve half-hour episodes covers a different month in the Mayles' first "Year in Provence." Over the course of a year, Peter and Annie slowly adjust to life in their new home. Many of the episodes show them experiencing the "culture shock" of living in southeast France. In February, they must adjust to the "Mistral," the interminable Provencial wind that blows without stopping for an entire month. In September, they harvest the grapes from Peter's wine vineyard -- only to learn that the grapes will not be used to create a great wine, but instead will be processed with grapes from other vineyards into an "industrial wine" at a local factory. And in December, they learn the intricacies and headaches of local politics as a debate rages through their Provincial town over who will play Péré Noel (Father Christmas) on Christmas Eve.
Peter and Annie must also learn to live with the eccentricities of the French. These include Riviéré, their scruffy, unwashed neighbor who owns a wood full of high-priced truffle mushrooms; Antoine, the keeper of Peter's backyard vineyard; and the endless stream of workmen, led by the plumber, Mr. Columbani, who come to the Mayles' new house to fix up and remodel the kitchens, bathrooms, etc. As the year progresses, these people will become close friends of the Mayles.
In some of the episodes, tales from Mayle's books have been expanded into larger stories. These include the story of the rich woman who moves to Provence for the peace and quiet, only to find that her next-door neighbor has an unusually-loud and troublesome rooster, and the story of the truffle thief who would rather abandon his wife to the law than give up his treasure of stolen truffles.
Other episodes take stories from different sources. One episode re-tells the story of the French film, "The Baker's Wife," as Peter and Annie Mayle try to re-unite Godin, the local baker, with his wayward wife. But at least they have the decency to *acknowledge* where they stole the story. (When Godin's wife has run away, the depressed baker moans to Peter, "It's just like that movie, 'The Baker's Wife.' Except I don't even have a cat to keep me company.")
John Thaw provides a solid lead performance as Peter Mayle. He is a mild-mannered man who only wants to live a quiet, enjoyable life. But life in Provence has a way of throwing interesting and nettling obstacles in his path. At first, Mayle reacts to these problems with the disbelief and confusion of a native Londoner living in a strange new environment. But he gradually comes to accept these problems as part of the wonder of living in Provence.
Lindsay Duncan also turns in an admirable performance as Annie, Peter's wife. She is a smart, level-headed woman who can sometimes be more clever and insightful than her husband in solving problems.
And there are some great guest role appearances in the mini-series. Alfred Molina has an absolutely terrific part as Tony Havers, an obnoxious, uninvited English house-guest of the Mayles who takes over their house and refuses to leave. French actress Annie Sinigalia has a great role as the neurotic rich woman from Paris, who is attracted to Peter Mayle, but who ultimately can't adjust to living in Provence. And always-wonderful Frank Middlemass appears as an English expatriate who teaches Peter the rules of Boules, Provence's favorite pastime game.
And through it all, we get stunning views of Provence, with its mountains, hilltop castles, lavender fields, vineyards, quaint villages, and sun-drenched valleys that seem to stretch forever. "A Year In Provence" is like taking a trip to Provence, and touching its heart and soul.
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