The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Strangers and Brothers (1983-1984): The Verdict

Last night, I finished an epic rematch, for the first time in over 30 years of Strangers and Brothers, the BBC adaptation of C.P. Snow's 11 volume novel sequence. That series has long been a favorite of mine, and I was introduced to it by the adaptation, which aired on Masterpiece Theater in 1984.

The part I remembered best was the episodes adapting The Light and the Dark and The Masters, interlocking novels. Those three of the 13 total episodes were every bit as good as I recalled them being, with Nigel Havers soaring as the charming, tragic Roy Calvert. He's surrounded by some fine actors--Elizabeth Spriggs and Tony Britton strike sparks with Havers, and Joan Greenwood shines as Lady Boscastle, who manages to defeat Roy at his own tricks, surprising a hearty laugh from him at his own expense.

Cheri Lunghi, whom I remember best as Guenevere in Excalibur is admirable as Lewis Eliot's second wife Margaret. (As it happens, Havers and Lunghi, who attended drama school together, are currently appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest).

The other standout is Edward Hardwicke, most famous as Dr. Watson in the later episodes of the admirable Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series. Here he plays Sir hector Rose, Eliot's boss in the Civil Service, a sarcastic, overly polite, but quite ruthless practitioner of the arts of Whitehall. Hardwicke captures the cynical professionalism of Rose--the "passionate indifference" which Eliot learns from him, wondering if it will endanger his soul--and then, in later episodes, slowly lends his support to Eliot's most idealistic and risky venture. Their barbed conversations slowly become shared private language between colleagues, then comrades, and ultimately friends.

I haven't mentioned Anthony Hopkins yet. He's great as Roger Quaife--angry, self-righteous, a little afraid, but a live wire in every scene in which he appears. But Quaife only appears in two episodes, so I don't want to overstress him.

The weakest bits are the important tempestuous relationship between Lewis and his unstable first wife Sheila. Shaughan Seymour and Sheila Ruskin do their best--and are, intermittently, quite good together. But Sheila's acting out moments are poorly written, and Ruskin is struggling with a character whose tics don't quite add up. An extra three episodes, hewing closely to the book, and I think she'd have nailed it--in a scene straight from the book, in which Sheila brings the much poorer Lewis to his first fancy cocktail party, only to meet him there late and with another man, is spot on--Sheila's sadism is smoothly portrayed, all normal civility on the surface, gleeful cruelty bubbling underneath. And Seymour rises to her level, just as he does to Havers' and Lunghi's.

One technical note: in a series spanning four decades--the 1920s through the 1960s, Seymour's Lewis does not seemingly age until the last episodes; similarly Lunghi as Margaret. It's a little rough frankly.

Also, characters fade out, denied reappearances they have in the books--Charles March is dropped, and his scenes given to Lunghi, while a priest who is of only marginal importance to Eliot turns up.

Still, the portions that work, work quite well. And thanks to this adaptation, I read the excellent novels that have been a mainstay of mine since I was 18.

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