The first of seven shows built on two of Anthony Trollope's novels about the life and louts (and angels) of a cathedral town in England begins tomorrow on public television's "Masterpiece Theatre" series. It promises to be about as enchanting as television gets.
Called "Barchester Chronicles," it starts off with two thomping questions, which may well prevent it from rivaling some of the more popular shows but then it takes all kinds, and the questions are as follows:
If you are paid 15 times what you're worth, legally and through no campaign on your part, is it moral for you to keep enjoying that advantage? (A question some of us have never had a chance to deal with, of course.)
And another riddle -- can you charge forth to reform evil without bothering too much about who is hurt, as long as your motive is sincere, as long as you are not underhanded or unscrupulous, and as long as you do not especially relish or gloat over the necessary wreckage?
The warden of an almshouse, or charitable cathedral shelter for penniless old men, is flawlessly played by Donald Pleasence, who is shown to be gentle, imaginative, sensitive, courteous, kind and to obey the Scout law at all times. He is afflicted, as his bishop says in sympathy, with periodic bouts of Christianity, which of course makes the road bumpy for him on those occasions in which he happens to notice reality. Otherwise, he does not care much for wealth, but simply does not look God in the teeth when the gold rains from heaven.
His antagonist, played by David Gwillim, is out to reform a fatted church somewhat as if it were a calf. He sees the melting sweetness of the warden, all right, but he is aghast that while the old pensioners get a few cents a day, the warden gets $65,000 a year, say, from the revenues established for the almshouse in the 15th century. The value of the original bequest has increased wonderfully and most of this new wealth has been awarded by the church to the priest who supervises the shelter.
The old warden also directs the cathedral choir, and spends most of his money evidently on cathedral music. The reformer is much taken with the fact that people are hungry and can't eat choir music.
The reformer, apart from being self-righteous, conspicuously stupid and a ravenous bore, is attractive enough. He is right and can hardly get over it. You know the type.
You may not know the type of the warden, since our society runs a bit short at the moment on complete innocents, and it is worth our time to meet such a character.
The acting of the warden is a delight, and the same may be said for the performances of the old codgers of the almshouse, the addled bishop and the felinoid archdeacon (Nigel Hawthorne), one of those bottom-liners quite familiar to all, though the ones nowadays are rarely so agreeable to watch or so frank in the pounce.
Trollope, who may be thought of as a low-voltage Dickens or the poor male answer to Jane Austen, is nevertheless better than any novelists of our day, and I think unarguably better than the masters who write "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Dumbo." The cast here is better, too, and so is the scenery. Trollope had Salisbury in mind as the setting for his novels, but the show was filmed not there but at Peterborough. If you happen to rather dislike Salisbury and to love the great church at Peterborough, as I suppose all right-thinking people do, this will seem an astonishing improvement, rare in TV annals.
They throw in a very good boys choir and some admirable cathedral gardens mainly to show you that some producers and directors actually have eyes and ears. These touches must be gratefully received.
Do not believe the baloney that I have several times heard that the opening show is rather dull. It is uncommonly good work. Dandy, to be plain.