"The Last Place on Earth," the 15th-season premiere of Mobil's "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS, begins along lines that suggest a "Chariots of Ice" -- another story of hale fellows well meant, giving their all for dear old England, this time in quest of the South Pole.
While the British may be hale, however, the Norwegians are considerably more hearty, and this account of the race to the Pole, a six-part series starting tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26 and other public TV stations, seems more sympathetic to Norway's determined explorer Roald Amundsen than to British Navy Capt. Robert Scott, whose upper lip becomes stiffer than usual as he and his men brave Antarctic reaches. One may know how the race comes out or, having last thought about it in a high school history class, forgotten; either way, "The Last Place on Earth" is a gripping, haunting and spectacularly scenic adventure.
Martin Shaw, a popular television star in England, plays Scott with just the right air of stoic hauteur. On the surface something of an imperious pedant, Scott is shown to have his compensating vulnerabilities as well. Early on he explains to his wife, "I have never found the world trustworthy. To me, it has always been implacable, hostile and against me at every step." But with a wife like his, he can afford paranoia. She's the power and the throne, and the glory, come to think of it -- a formidable force one might go so far as to call the Nancy Reagan of polar expeditions.
It seems slightly incredible that she is played by Susan Wooldridge, previously the flinty but fragile catalyst in that magnificent production "The Jewel in the Crown." Wooldridge is playing so completely different a role here that her gung-ho performance is also an admirable demonstration of professional versatility.
Meanwhile, in Norway, Roald Amundsen, ably played by Sverre Anker Ousdal, has announced intentions to seek the North, not the South, Pole, until this fellow Peary comes along to upstage him. He changes course but keeps it all a secret until a stop in Madeira, at which point he informs his crew in a wonderfully matter-of-fact way that there is going to be "a minor diversion for one year in Antarctica."
Writer Trevor Griffiths and director Ferdinand Fairfax contrast the windy pomposities of the British embarkation ceremonies with the spartan simplicity of the Norwegians' quiet farewells. When Scott sets sail, he doesn't know this is to be a race. He's preoccupied, anyway, with cost overruns and personnel politics. Grandly he speechifies that he considers himself "a truth seeker rather than a Pole seeker" and a member of "the greatest club on earth: the British Empire."
Another orator had said earlier, "Every uninhabited point of this globe belongs by right to England." If historical characters made such statements in movies of the '60s and early '70s, it would have been the filmmakers' invitation to hoot and ridicule them. But here the imperial sentiments of old are evoked with a wistful melancholy, and we are encouraged to see the poignance in the characters' cherished beliefs that thus 'twould ever be.
Two American actors are among those contributing to the gallery of vital performances: Brian Dennehy, in a wild riot of a beard, appears briefly, as does the venerable Alexander Knox. Max von Sydow, returning to vehicles with a little dignity again, looks bracingly hearty as Fridtjof Nansen, one of Amundsen's patrons.
The drama could be called slow-moving, but then, would one expect a saga of polar exploration to be hectic? A brilliant use of music by the filmmakers combines with frequently exquisite cinematography to help sustain interest. Arid patches do come along, but the rewards for sitting through them are ample. There is grandeur to this saga, and there is intimacy, and for the observer, a sense of vicarious accomplishment that comes from making the trek via scrupulous dramatization.
Alas, there is a dismaying note. Episode One was meant to be a two-hour chapter, but overreachers at WGBH in Boston, which imports these productions for PBS, took it upon themselves to chop half an hour off. This results in an least one yawning chasm in the continuity, just prior to the mysterious appearance of Knox in the first hour. These "Masterpiece Theatre" packagers are the most dreadful and disagreable people, even for Bostonians. Allowing them to interfere with such a production as this is like appointing the mailman to edit Book-of-the-Month Club deliveries.
To make matters a little worse, host Alistair Cooke's introduction to the series goes on and on and on. So much so that one begins to fear he will talk the entire time period away, absent-mindedly forgetting that there is a film to be shown at all. 'Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes'
On "Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes," you don't get to see enough of anyone but Andy Warhol, of whom you get to see too much. Nevertheless, this MTV special, which according to a logic all its own is 30 minutes long, is a cheerfully eccentric departure for the music video network. It probably would be the premiere of a series if MTV executives weren't quite such timid, commercial-minded babies.
It can be seen on MTV tomorrow night at 9 and again at midnight.
As an artist, Warhol has never precisely been anticommercial, of course, though his movies always defied conventional rhythms, to put it mildly. On this show, midway between a hodgepodge and a mishmash, Warhol talks with rock stars like Debbie Harry (a charmer of the new school) and Ric Ocasek of the Cars, for whom Warhol once did a video. He disappears altogether for such miscellaneous attractions as a fashion show and a brief visit with a typically daffy Greenwich Village artist.
Warhol is a man who always looks bored but who seems genetically unborable. His cool half-presence is compelling in its way, but it would have been nice to see less of him and more of his guests, especially Harry. Naturally there is a parade of demiclad models, male and female, and to one of the former, Warhol says, "You have flawless skin. No pimples or anything." The beguiling Phoebe Cates is seen in an inventive sequence that mingles three videotaped interviews she gave at the ages of 16, 18 and 22.
There's no content, of course, but then that would only spoil things.
Finally, the unstructured program ends with a visit to Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, where some performers are gonged off the stage by boos and an official "executioner," one Howard B. Sims Sr., but where other performers appear quite capable of lighting up any stage anywhere. Obviously there's enough material in this segment for a program-length documentary, but that rascal Andy is nothing if not sprightly. Pop goes the program, and just when it was getting good. Or at least better than one might have hoped.