In the late 1970s you couldn't turn on network television without there being at least one mini-series being broadcast. While at one point there might have been something approaching quality in the shows, it didn't last long. They quickly became an excuse for turning cheesy novels into cheesy television. At their lowest ebb they were ways to grab a market share by having the latest starlet walking around in next to nothing for three hours of prime time for three consecutive nights.
Thankfully, they became too costly and unwieldy to make, and the networks figured they could do the same thing on a weekly basis for less money simply by not airing a show until after 9:00 PM when prime time was over. Why have a mini-series when you can a have a weekly show like L.A. Law with plot lines guaranteeing a scantily glad woman in every episode?
Occasionally you'll see one stick its head above the battlements, but for all intents and purposes the commercial American mini-series has gone the way of polyester suits and white guys with permanent Afros. As is the case with everything else when it comes to television it's a completely different story on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Maybe it's because the Brits invented television, or maybe because they have a tradition of acting that predates European settlement on this continent, or they simply use better source material. Whatever the reason, they routinely produce mini–series that are so far superior to the American product that it feels insulting to designate them by the same name.
Brideshead Revisited, Pride And Prejudice, Nicholas Nickleby, I, Claudius, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, David Copperfield, and the list goes on and on. Even when they get one wrong, like the original Forsyth Saga, they remake it into a masterpiece twenty years later. It was only thanks to Alistair Cooke and his show Masterpiece Theatre on Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) that Americans (and Canadians in border towns) ever learned that television could produce shows equal to or better than the movies.
Of course with the advent of deep cable and satellite channels more and more people have gained access to the shows and their popularity has soared. Even those few who don't bother with cable are able to watch the best of them as Acorn Media has been packaging up programming from both the BBC and Channel 4 for purchase in the United States. Now they are set to release another that we can add to the list above, the ambitious and astounding adaptation of Anthony Powell's twelve-volume saga of life in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s, A Dance To The Music Of Time.
The four-volume DVD box set marks the first time A Dance To The Music Of Time will be seen in America when it is released later this month on August 28. Clocking in at just over 400 minutes, over six and half hours, it seems like a heck of a lot of time to spend telling one story, but when it's over you'll find yourself wishing it hadn't finished so soon. From the opening to the closing frame you never feel like there's a wasted moment.
The story is simple enough as we follow the lives of a group of friends and associates in the British aristocracy from their days in Eton public school in the 1920s until later in life as seen through the eyes of the lead character Nicholas Jenkins, from the bohemian days of the late '20s and '30s where, when they weren't flirting with each other (men and women, men and men), they were flirting with communism, socialism, artistic expression, and spiritualism. (Spiritualism is the term used by the English when talking about using mediums and automatic writing to communicate with those who have died and for predicting the future.)
When the war comes we follow them through the horrible days of the blitz and their various postings and watch them cope with the loss of friends. Of course some of them prosper and do very well for themselves, not least of all the one person they all despise, Kenneth Widmerpool. Somehow in spite of being universally hated he manages to become a high-ranking officer by the end of the war and perfectly positioned to take his place in the halls of power.
In fact Widmerpool could be an object of sympathy if he weren't such an odious character who exacts petty revenges for slights both real and imagined whenever he has the opportunity. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters never take him seriously enough; their snobbery keeps him in the role of "that odious little man" and an object of ridicule, while he plots and schemes his way to the top, literally burying as many of them as possible on his way.
Of course it's a woman who is Widmerpool's downfall. Pamela Filton (played to perfection by Miranda Richardson) is the femme fatale to end all femme fatales. She does some sort of secretive work for British intelligence during the War, and brings about the downfall of those who get in her way. It seems only fitting that she and Widmerpool end up together and… well, I'm not going to give away all the secrets.
Although the script is well written (I can't imagine what a chore it must have been to condense twelve volumes into only six hours of television and still make it as coherent a script as was presented here), and the direction is adroit with never a shot wasted or too much time taken on any one scene, what really elevates A Dance To The Music Of Time above anything you'll ever see on North American television are the performances. When Sir John Gielgud is playing what amounts to a walk-on role you know that the rest of the cast is bound to be superlative, if only not to be outshone by a cameo.
Simon Russell Beale plays Widmerpool as such an odious toad that there's no way you're going to feel any pity for him even if everybody laughs in his face continually; you just can't help believing he deserves every slight sent his way. As I said earlier he is only matched by Miranda Richardson's performance as his eventual wife and worst nightmare. If ever there were a dream couple from hell, these two do a magnificent job of portraying them, never once overdoing it, but always going right to the edge, which makes both their characters believable and the most fun to watch.
James Purefoy (he played Reese Witherspoon's army officer husband in the movie Vanity Fair and the Prince Of Wales in A Knights Tale) has the unenviable task of playing the ultimate straight man, Nicholas Jenkins, through whose eyes we see the whole story. He does a fantastic job of actually finding ways of expressing character in what is essentially a plot device around which all the other characters revolve. A lesser actor could never have accomplished what he did given what little he had to work with (my one complaint with the production is that they replace him for the last reel with an older actor who is nowhere near as accomplished – I wish they would have simply aged Purefoy as they did with other actors).
The rest of the cast reads like a who's who of film, theatre, and television with Edward Fox, Zoe Wanamaker, and Eileen Atkins all making their presence felt, with others – like Adrian Scarborough and Paul Rhys, who you know you've seen before but can't put your finger on where – giving spectacular performances. I can't honestly remember the last time I watched anything with such a consistent level of high quality acting from the smallest to the largest role.
The four-DVD set of A Dance To The Music Of Time joins the ranks of the great British serials that have shown up on our television screens over the last thirty years. Although there aren't a great many special features aside from filmographies for the cast and a photo gallery, one realizes how little something like that matters when the actual production is as good as this one.
If you are looking to watch some truly wonderful acting in a well paced and intelligently written and directed script, than I'd look no further than A Dance To The Music Of Time. The only trouble is I don't know how you're ever going to be able to watch regular television ever again.