There's a large small hotel -- the Pelican, in Winstonbury. If it exists only in Warwick Deeping's novel "Sorrell and Son," and the new "Masterpiece Theater" version of it, more's the pity. The Pelican looks like a perfect place to go and hide and sleep. Perchance, to oversleep.
"Sorrell and Son," a five-part serialization premiering tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26 and the Maryland Public Broadcasting stations, offers more than a haven from the real world and its cares. It presents a sterling and stirring story of a father's love for his son and the way that love helps set the son on the course to a fulfilling life.
Jeremy Paul's adaptation takes the father and son from April 1921 -- shortly after the boy's mother leaves them both in search of dissolute adventures -- through 1935, by which time the son has married and become a doctor and the father considers his "job" done.
"Sorrell and Son" is the kind of film that sets you to imagining things you hope will happen to the characters and then finding to your pleasant surprise that they do. However, no one's life, in fact or fiction, is all good fortune, and Sorrell and son suffer their calamities and pain. Indeed, the concluding chapter is an agonizing ordeal for one and all.
If the film has nostalgia value, it's not for the clothes and automobiles, nor even for the Pelican Hotel. It's for the decency and dignity of the main characters and the way they are played: Richard Pasco as Sorrell and Peter Chelsom as his son Christopher (played as a conspicuously well-behaved 12-year-old in Part 1 by Paul Critchley).
Pasco is especially compelling as the father; there's nothing false or showy about his performance. It is quiet, understated and yet magnetic. Pasco has a sad, haunted face like Harry Langdon's, yet he gives the character a palpable, assertive strength.
Chelsom is every inch the gentleman and every word the good actor. Derek Bennett, the producer and director, got good, solid, naturalistic performances from just about everybody, and that includes the women who eventually enter Christopher's life. Molly Pentreath (Sarah Neville) is the soul of '20s feminism.
Christopher's mother occasionally comes by to attempt to reclaim him. Gwen Watford shows plenty of enigmatic wistfulness in the part. And then there's dear, plump Mary (Debbie Wheeler), another of Christopher's loves, who rescues him when he falls in with flappers in Part 3. As for father, he takes a mistress, the faithful Fanny (Prunella Ransome).
For a while, it appears Deeping had a misogynist streak, since the population of victimizing females keeps growing. A friend of Christopher's contracts gonorrhea from a tart; his father's boss at the disreputable fleabag hotel where dad gets his first job is a predatory banshee. But eventually the score evens out.
Sorrell escapes the fleabag when it is visited by Thomas Roland (John Shrapnel), who hires him for his own newly renovated Pelican. A bullying blackguard named Buck (complete your own limerick, please) spoils things at the Pelican for a while, but Roland fires him, declaring, "I never expect gratitude; sportsmanship is better."
Later, in Part 2, Christopher's spurned mother tells him, "My dear boy, if life doesn't teach one sportsmanship, what's the use?" The film is about capitalizing on whatever sporting chance one has. Lives have no orderly plan, the father observes near the conclusion -- "just a warring of blind forces."
Sorrell and son's odyssey is remarkable and builds to a magnificently emotional climax. As slow, steady and dry as it sometimes is, the series inspires considerable personal involvement with the characters and their fates. One shares their joys and their wounds. The wounds are quick to heal; the joys promise to last.
'Thurgood Marshall' Carl T. Rowan continues his absorbing and enlightening conversation with a sitting Supreme Court justice tomorrow night at 8 when "Thurgood Marshall, The Man" airs on Channel 9 (WUSA). Actually, four different conversations have been edited together, along with reminiscence about Marshall and his times by some of those who have known him.
We know him, too, by the end of the program, a follow-up to Rowan's earlier encounter, "Searching for Justice: Three American Stories," which aired in September. This one deals less with issues and more with Marshall's highly eventful biography, but near the conclusion, Rowan asks him for more of his considered opinions.
Marshall accuses factions within the Reagan administration of "trying to undermine the Supreme Court itself." Asked whether Attorney General Edwin Meese "has given proper honor to the separation of powers," Marshall responds, "I don't think he understands it."
He is critical of the present court's assaults on the right of privacy. "A couple of more decisions like that Georgia sodomy case, and we won't have any privacy left," he says. "But I will raise my voice against it as long as I've got breath."
The biographical details are vivid. Marshall recalls being a teen-ager in his native Baltimore and finding there were no public bathrooms downtown that a black person was allowed to use. He felt "the urge" one day, hopped on a trolley to get home as fast as he could, and made it as far as the front door.
"That's a little more than inconvenience," he says. "And guess what: I remember it."
His mother pawned her wedding ring so Marshall could attend Lincoln University. As a brilliant civil rights lawyer for the NAACP (born in 1909, one year after he was), Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, one of them Brown v. Board of Education. John F. Kennedy named Marshall to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and Lyndon Johnson appointed him solicitor general and then a Supreme Court justice.
Among others interviewed are Justice William Brennan, Jack Valenti and Marshall's former secretary, Alice Stovall, who was photographed in front of a window with a swirling snowfall going on outside.
"Marshall, the Man," like "Searching for Justice," was produced for WUSA by Jeanne Bowers. Specials like this one help ensure that Channel 9 retains its decided superiority among local stations in news and public affairs programming.
Rowan asks Marshall the inevitable question about how he would like to be remembered. He says he would like people to say, "He did the best he could with what he had." Marshall's decision to give his first, and possibly only, television interviews presented Rowan with a great opportunity -- and they both made the most of it.