If there'll always be an England, there'll also always be watercress sandwiches. And moors. Watercress sandwiches and moors just about sum it up, with perhaps some bad manners thrown in. Such is the stuff of tonight's very handsome and engrossing CBS movie "The Secret Garden," based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
The film, at 9 on Channel 9 (a bit late for some of the children who would enjoy it most), tells the tale of young Mary Lennox, orphaned in the opening reel when her parents are murdered in Victorian India, then sent to Yorkshire to live with a mysterious guardian at equally mysterious Misselthwaite Manor. You can't have moors without a manor, after all.
"The moors are ugly," growls Mary once she sees them. She haughtily announces to her nanny, "I don't have to be polite to servants." Mary, you see, is a very naughty little girl, spoiled and bossy as rich little girls can be. But the secret locked garden behind the manor holds the key to her redemption, as well as that of Colin Craven, a self-pitying boy who has been hidden away in one of the manor's 100 rooms.
Imagining himself to be terminally ill, the boy says, "Everyone has to do as I say, because I'm going to die." Mary, who will brook no guff, exclaims things like, "Who do you think you are -- the rajah of Punjab?"
Gennie James and Jadrien Steele, cast as Mary and Colin, are not only beautiful children, they have a great deal of character in their faces and voices. James is particularly good as the sassy hellcat, and it is a pleasure to watch her transformation. Goodness and virtue, meanwhile, are personified in Barret Oliver as Mary's friend Dickon, a lad so in harmony with nature that he has a crow on his shoulder, a fox at his side and a squirrel down his pants.
The adult cast is strong. Derek Jacobi plays the brooding Archibald Craven, haunted by thoughts of what happened in the garden long ago and caused it to be locked up. Michael Hordern putters and mutters about as a wise, veritably all-wise, caretaker. Billie Whitelaw as the governess flexes her stiff upper lip in another of her stony authoritarian turns. She ought to play Mrs. Thatcher if a movie is ever made of her life.
Adapter Blanche Hanalis and director Alan Grint take a bit too much time getting the plot in motion, and Grint makes a mess of the India massacre at the beginning. The story has been framed as a flashback with the grown-up Mary (Irina Brook) remembering it all as she visits the garden after World War I; will she meet the grown-up Colin there? If she does, it would be nice if he were played by an actor less wooden and more interesting than Colin Firth. But we don't want to give too much away.
The manor (actually in Andover, England) is a resplendent sight, and the moors aren't bad either. Executive producer Norman Rosemont, who usually specializes in windy historical spectacles, achieves a stately lavishness here. The musical score incorporates a Chopin nocturne, something you sure don't find in your average TV movie.
Even though CBS is having a bad year in the weekly series department (and has for a few seasons now), its TV movies still have the highest standards of the three networks. "The Secret Garden" doesn't fit into any of the usual pigeonholes. You'd never see a film this classy or this unusual on NBC, and probably not on ABC either.
Previously filmed by MGM with Margaret O'Brien as Mary, "The Secret Garden" -- the 154th presentation of "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" -- ought to satisfy those who are fans of the book and intrigue those who are not. Everyone else will be watching football anyway.