In 1939, young Oliver, Calypso, Polly and Walter visit friends and family in Cornwall. Spanish Civil War is over and WW2 has begun, so they enjoy their love life while they can. Decades later, they gather again, this time for a funereal.
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This is such an absorbing and brilliant drama series (4 episodes totalling 413 minutes) that it ranks as one of the finest ever made for British television. It is a condensation and adaptation of 12 novels by Anthony Powell (1905-2000), somehow miraculously crammed into this much shorter space by Hugh Whitemore, and don't ask me how he does it. The story of many interweaving characters follows them from their university days in the 1920s through to the early 1960s, taking in the War years in considerable detail. There are several Oscar-class performances in the series. One of these is by Simon Russell Beale, who makes the transition from boy to elderly man in a supernaturally convincing way as the character Kenneth Widmerpool. Other characters had to be replaced as they aged, sometimes even twice, but Beale goes all the way. Certainly the makeup people deserve gold medals for pulling that off. His searing performance wholly dominates the series, and is one of the greatest of our time. In terms of intensity of emotion of people at the limits of desperation, two others take the laurels. They are Miranda Richardson as Pamela Fitton and Paul Rhys as Christopher Stringham. Probably these are the finest performances in their respective careers. This series ought to be studied minutely in all drama schools to teach the young 'uns how things are done by the best of their profession. James Purefoy excels as the lead character Nick Jenkins, though in the final episode he is replaced by an older actor whose name does not appear on the IMDb cast list, alas. Jenkins is the languid observer and occasional narrator of the story, who becomes a novelist and to some extent represents Powell himself. Magnificent cameo appearances by Alan Bennett as Sillery are so wonderful that the series is worth watching just for him alone. James Villiers appears in the first episode but is not listed with IMDb either, I notice. My old friend Bryan Pringle plays a butler in a most amusing way. The casting is brilliant, because everybody is just right. No one could have played Jenkins's Uncle Giles so slyly and with such exquisite mannerisms as Edward Fox. James Fleet is perfect as the composer Moreland, Zoe Wanamaker is disturbingly hard and brittle as Audrey Maclintick, just as she is supposed to be, Jonathan Cake is perfect as Peter Templer, and one could go on and on listing them all and how fine they were. The direction alternates between Alvin Rakoff and Christopher Morahan, with Rakoff directing episodes 1 and 3, and Morahan directing episodes 2 and 4. Rakoff produced and Whitemore was Executive Producer. No expense was spared for this series, and some of the location shooting even took place in Venice, despite it being rather a minor bit of background for the story. Occasionally screen time is wasted by lingering over things for too long, such as Jenkins's officer training course for the War; we did not really need to see him falling into a bed of leaves and getting them up his nose. The title of the series of novels and the TV series derives from a painting by Poussin of that name, which shows figures engaged in a round dance of rising and falling fortunes, and we recur to this painting throughout the series, where the point is not rubbed home too obviously, but is made very tastefully. This is a multiple life-saga which shows how people begin, how they interact over the decades, and how they end. So many dreams turn to dust, so many relationships go sour, and Miranda Richardson and Paul Rhys both disintegrate in front of our eyes in portrayals of some of the most desperate human despair ever committed to film. One thing which is particularly notable about the script and the series is the extraordinary command which most of the characters have over language, and the superb ways they have of expressing themselves even in their worst moments. This ranks as probably the most literate of all modern TV series. Watching it comes near to being a course in how to speak and express oneself properly, and the eloquence of Paul Rhys as he dissolves as a personality is outstanding in its pathos. The fact is that all of these people, even the rough characters, know how to speak English, and there are not many people who do anymore. So rapidly have speech and the language declined that even though this was made as recently as 1997, it already seems nearly as far away as Shakespeare. We now live in a debased era where few people under 30 can read, write, or count properly, much less speak coherently. Such has been the total collapse of educational standards and the eradication of culture, not to mention the damage done by text messaging and the grunting in imitation of footballers which takes the place of speech amongst large segments of the population who now think it is more fashionable to make animal sounds than to use their tongues and teeth to articulate recognisable language. One day, in a wholly grunt-filled world, someone may come across an old DVD of this series, find an antique machine to play it on, and not understand a word of what anyone says, because it is all expressed in a dead language called English, which ceased to be spoken about the year 2000. If there is still such a thing as electricity in the future (since no one is building any power stations to replace the old ones, except in China), and if there are still people left with minds not wholly dulled, and should they come across a way of viewing this old TV series, they will learn about something called the twentieth century, in a most vivid and unforgettable way. This series truly is a triumph of artistic integrity, talent, and sheer genius.
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