It commonly happens with "Masterpiece Theatre" that you need to know whether it's really worth the bother to get all the characters straight (sometimes you do and then the wretched piece turns out not worth watching). But yes-yes-yes, you will flip for "Bleak House" even if you're not certain who everybody is.
This eight-part dramatization of the Dickens novel about the law's delay is most handsomely produced, even by the highest standards of the series, and the cast is not short of glorious.
Dickens is the main exhibit in our language that nauseating sentimentality can be enchanting and the stuff of majesty; and that is because the man had wit of such luster as to make you long for yet more treacle, please.
The first hour was seen last Sunday (repeated at 6 tonight on Chan-nel 26) with most of the main characters present, though some will roar in later. People ask where the British get all these actors you never heard of, all of them virtually flawless, and the answer is they go out on the street and round up the first two dozen people wandering out of the Victoria subway stop.
Tomorrow's episode, for example (of flawlessness), involves a small role for Rosemary McHale as Mrs. Pardiggle -- a role thought too minor to note in the long cast list sent out by the publicists. But in short measures life may perfect be, and rarely more so than in the case of this good lady who sweeps triumphantly through life with her select list of charities, making everyone she meets utterly miserable. Her dreadful little children (all adopted, for there were no firm rules against torturing children in those days) pledge at the age of 4 never to smoke, drink, or do anything agreeable in their entire lives, and a number of them have of course since moved to this capital.
The novel is supposed to be a blazing attack on the Courts of Chancery, though I for one never caught fire on that topic, feeling that if people are going to squabble endlessly over wills, they can expect delays, and lawyers should certainly get paid for doing the nasty jobs that no sensible person would dream of devoting a life to.
Denholm Elliott, Diana Rigg, Lucy Hornak and Philip Franks are among the chief characters, and Diana Rigg is a touchstone: If her beauty does not drive you wild, you are tired of life.
You must be warned, however, that dozens will be slain ere curtain fall. One of Dickens' quirks is to cause all the English to drop dead if they get damp or hear unexpected news, when in reality that race is virtually inexterminable. So people die and carry on and it is all tremendous fun. Unlike "Nicholas Nickleby," another of his novels presented on television, "Bleak House" will bring forth no tears. Even I, who weep copiously if Nancy Reagan loses a farecard, sat fully dry-eyed through the entire eight hours, but in such a grip of excited interest as will gratify the author's ghost.
The photography is outstanding, so is the musical score and, most of all, the text for television, for it is no slight accomplishment to boil Dickens down to only 3 million words or so while retaining his power.
When Miss Flite (Sylvia Coleridge) frees the lousy sparrows she has been keeping in cages no dirtier than her lodging, you would normally drop dead of lace poisoning, but will not get sick at all because the actress' technical instincts are so sound and her performance so engaged that it all seems reasonable. I imagine this cast, as an ensemble, could do "Daffy Duck" with the impact of Ibsen.
A particular joy is the extensive selection of loathsome humans held up for very close inspection. I have wavered in my choice, but now settle on Guppy (Jonathan Moore) as possibly the vilest of the lot, though with stiff competition from, especially, Skimpole (T.P. McKenna) and the lawyer, Tulkinghorn (Peter Vaughan), though the last is too familiar to provide truly novel shocks.
I undertook to view the eight hours on a tape machine largely because I had no intention of sitting through the station's fund-raising efforts. If, however, a show was ever worth the price of watching ladies with bags and similar premiums, then "Bleak House" is probably it.