Imagine this: it’s the present, and we’re in the office of a Fox television producer. A writer is pitching a show to the producer:
Writer: So, the two characters, Lionel and Jean, live in London, they meet in the ’50s, at the start of the Korean war. They have a passionate affair. Lionel is a young military officer and Jean is a nurse.
Producer: Go on…
Writer: Lionel goes off to war. He and Jean exchange letters, but at one point the letters stop coming.
Producer: Sad. They should have used e-mail.
Writer: It’s 1953.
Producer: Yeah, right. No e-mail. Didn’t they use those huge punch cards?
Writer: Now, fast-forward to 1992. Jean runs a secretarial service in London. Lionel has spent several decades in Kenya. He’s back in London writing a book.
Producer: Wait, wait, so it’s 39 years later? That would mean Jean and Lionel are, like, 60!
Writer: Yes, that’s correct.
Producer: Hmm. That’s not the right demo. We skew younger.
Writer: Well, as it turns out, Lionel needs a secretary and he ends up at Jean’s secretarial service.
Writer: Jean and Lionel are reunited. They discover the reason why the letters stopped coming is a letter sent by Lionel to Jean was never received by Jean, so she never knew what happened to him.
Producer: And now…
Writer: We follow them as they rekindle their romance, over a period of time.
Producer: A period of time? How long? Three episodes?
Writer: No, several seasons. From 1992 to the present.
Producer: Yikes! That’ll never work. Can’t you make it the Persian Gulf war that separates them? And Lionel…what is he doing now? Writing a book?
Writer: Yes, and lecturing.
Producer: And Jean runs a secretarial service?
Producer: That’ll never work! How about we make it the Persian Gulf war that separates them. Lionel can be one of those crazy TV doctors, like that guy on House. And Jean runs a…uh, I dunno, we’ll think of something. A coffee shop! Or maybe a detective agency.
Writer: No, Lionel and Jean will be in their 60s. We’ve got Dame Judi Dench to play Jean! She’s the best. An Academy-award winner.
Producer: Is she related to Dame Edna?
Writer (bangs head on door).
A show like that might not fly in the U.S., but lucky for us, the BBC went with the show as described (minus the Persian Gulf/crazed doctor part) in the wonderful series As Time Goes By. Chances are you’ll be able to catch it on your local PBS station, if it’s not already airing.
The show, which ran from 1992 to 2002, did indeed chronicle the romance between Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Dame Judi Dench), picking up their relationship after nearly four decades apart. In an age of raunchy toilet humor, As Time Goes By charms with wit and the fabulous chemistry of the leads. As was (and still is, in some cases) the usual British custom, the entire series was written by one man, Bob Larbey, who took us through ten series (the British version of an American television season, albeit shorter), developing the romance between Lionel and Jean in a realistic fashion.
Palmer and Dench are simply marvelous together. Palmer’s Lionel is an occasionally cranky fellow with a fondness for custard tarts, while Jean has a knack for getting herself involved in the lives of people around her. Both have great comic timing and their on-screen relationship seems genuine.
The supporting cast is also very good, with Moira Brooker as Jean’s daughter Judy, Jenny Funnell as Sandy, and Philip Bretherton as the millionaire book publisher Alistair Deacon.
This is not a fast-paced show with a quick resolution of some conflict at the end of 30 minutes. The show has its own pace, which can be slow and reflective or just silly and cute. It all rings true, though, which is important to us, the audience, in becomming attached to the characters. And when Lionel and Jean finally marry, it’s not contrived, but rather a natural progression of events.
As Time Goes By is a smart, funny, and witty show. If it’s airing on your local PBS station, be sure to tune in. If not, the entire series is available on DVD. Let’s cross our fingers that a U.S. network does NOT decide to re-do the show for American sensibilities. It’s perfect as is.