Bleak House (BBC, 1959) – Simply Media DVD Review

Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.

So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House.  Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….

Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.

It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one.  Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest.  The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.

When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals.  Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …

Elizabeth Shepherd, Diana Fairfax and Colin Jeavons

It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers.  Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in.  Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.

At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens.  He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff.  Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses.  Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.

Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials.  Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps.  Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).

Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s.  Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.

Andrew Cruickshank

As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor.  Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.

It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)

He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook.  Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials.  Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.

Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.

As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.

Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.

Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.

Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Colin Jeavons, Elizabeth Shepherd & Diana Fairfax

Dombey & Son (BBC, 1969) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Paul Dombey’s (John Carson) fondest wish is for a son to carry on his thriving business.  As the story opens, his wife duly delivers a baby boy who is swiftly named Paul after his doting father.  Although Mrs Dombey dies shortly afterwards, this seems to have a negligible impact on Dombey as his son quickly becomes the centre of his life (with the result that his daughter Florence is pushed even more into the background).

When young Paul dies at the age of six, Dombey Snr is devastated.  Florence attempts to comfort him but he continues to rebuff her, which eventually leads to a seemingly irrevocable split between father and daughter ….

Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848, Dombey & Son, despite being regarded by many as one of Dickens’ best works, has generated surprisingly few film or television adaptations.  In the cinema, a 1917 British silent film and a very loose 1931 adaptation (which was renamed Rich Man’s Folly and saw the action transferred to the United States) are the only examples.  On television there have been just two English-language versions – this one and a later BBC Classic Serial adaptation in 1983.

The first episode quickly defines Dombey’s character. He’s a proud, dignified and extremely humourless man who treats his young daughter, Florence (played to begin with by Vicky Williams and later by Kara Wilson), with at best indifference and at worst contempt. John Carson, an actor who was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, impresses right from the start. Unbending as Dombey might be, Carson doesn’t play him as simply a monster, instead he offers a much more nuanced performance.

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John Carson

Although Dombey is something of a dull fellow, as compensation there’s a number of sparkling comic performances sprinkled throughout the thirteen episodes. Two sitcom favourites – Hilda Braid and Pat Coombs – form a wonderful double-act as Louisa Chick and Lucretia Tox.  Louisa (Braid) is Dombey’s sister, a woman who shares her brother’s low opinion of Florence whilst Lucretia (Coombs) is her friend, a somewhat simpleminded person who simpers delightfully over Dombey and harbours a hopeless secret desire to become the next Mrs Dombey.

William Moore, another actor probably best known for his sitcom work (for example, the long-suffering Mr Lumsden in Sorry!) is padded up as the hearty seadog Captain Cuttle. Complete with a hook for a hand, Moore gives an unsubtle, but highly entertaining performance.

The first meeting between Dombey and Cuttle is an absolute gem. Dombey, taking afternoon refreshment with Paul and Florence in a Brighton tearoom (young Paul has been sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will restore his failing health), is appalled when the colourful Captain Cuttle sidles over to his table. Cuttle is introduced to Domby by Walter Gay (Derek Seaton), one of Dombey’s clerks. The best moment of all is when Walter first mentions Cuttle’s name and the Captain raises his arm (the one with the hook, naturally) in response. Lovely!

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William Moore

Vicky Williams, as young Florence, doesn’t have a great deal of screentime (Kara Wilson would take over the role by the middle of the second episode) but she still makes an impression. The scenes where she’s lost in the city after being robbed of her clothes by an old crone, Mrs Brown (Fay Compton), are heartbreaking. Equally affecting is Ronald Pickering as young Paul. When Paul asks Dombey (in response to being told that money can buy anything) whether it can buy good health, his father is temporarily speechless.

When Dombey decides to send his young clerk, Walter, to the West Indies, it’s a story-beat which intrigues on several levels. Firstly, it’s another example of the way that Dombey cares little for other people (apart, of course, from his son) since it never seems to cross his mind to canvas Walter’s opinion first. Secondly, since Walter has shown interest in Florence, dispatching him abroad serves to sever their tentative relationship. Considering that he seems to care little for his daughters happiness, this appears to be an act of deliberate cruelty.

The fourth episode tugs at the heartstrings as young Paul begins to fade. His death is an understated moment – the camera moves away from his bed to focus on the window as the sound level reduces. The next scene, as Dombey stands by his son’s grave, is a sharp and jolting cut, but it works well.

Christopher Sandford as Mr Toots helps to lighten the mood following Paul’s funeral. Mr Toots, a former schoolfriend of Paul, is a kind-hearted, vague and twitchy young man who loves Florence dearly (but although she always treats him kindly it’s plain that she doesn’t feel the same way). But the ever-optimistic Mr Toots is never downhearted and can always be guaranteed to come bouncing back. Sandford provides a delightful comic performance in a serial which has an abundance of them.

Towards the end of this episode there’s the first hint that Dombey isn’t quite as unbending as he might appear. He decides not to send Walter to the West Indies after all, but it’s too late – his ship has already sailed, much to Florence’s anguish (which only increases when the vessel is feared to have been lost at sea).  Kara Wilson, as befits the character she plays, may be somewhat placed in the background but she still essays a subtle performance as a young woman constantly rebuffed by a father who finds it impossible to communicate with her on anything but the most rudimentary level.

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Kara Wilson

Clive Swift is yet another quality addition to the cast. He plays the bluff and hearty Major Bagstock, who seems to be Dombey’s only friend. The restrained Dombey and the ebullient Bagstock would seem to have little in common, but it’s their very differences which help to generate an entertaining spark between them.

The middle part of the serial sees Dombey remarry. He selects Edith Granger (Sally Home) who seems in every way to be an ideal choice – as she’s a skilled artist and musician as well as being a refined conversationalist. Nestling amongst some deliciously broad comic performances, Home offers a sharp contrast as the second Mrs Dombey.

Although she accepts Dombey’s proposal, it’s plain that – on her side at least – it’s not a love match. Manipulated by her mother from an early age (in order to ensnare a rich husband) Edith is a weary and embittered figure. But the one bright spark in her new life is her relationship with Florence.

Whilst some children might regard a new step-mother with mistrust, Florence is plainly overjoyed – partly because she hopes it will enable her father to find new happiness but also because there’s no doubt that her lonely existence would be enriched by a mothers love. The way that Florence instantly refers to Edith as Mama is touching (Kara Wilson is excellent again here).

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Sally Home

But any happiness that Dombey might have hoped for is short-lived, as Edith runs away with the slimy and manipulative Caker (Gary Raymond). Dombey, with the assistance of Alice Brown (also played by Sally Home) and her mother (who coincidently robbed the young Florence earlier in the serial) vows to track them down.

Gary Raymond seems to delight in playing the boo-hiss villain who, as tradition demands, meets a sticky end. And although Home plays both roles well, it probably would have been better had another actress played Alice (a woman who had a special cause to dislike Caker). This is mainly because it’s more than a little odd that no-one who ever meets Alice comments on her remarkably strong resemblance to Edith ….

Edith’s departure finally severs the already fraying relationship between Dombey and Florence. Whilst a distraught Florence is taken under Captain Cuttle’s wing (William Moore once again marvellous value at this point in the serial) Dombey faces severe business traumas due to Caker’s rash profiteering.  And as Dombey’s own health takes a turn for the worse, a now happily-married Florence attempts one final reconciliation. Will the patrician Dombey deign to acknowledge his daughter and her children?

Runnng for thirteen 25 minute episodes, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation manages to skillfully fillet Dickens’ novel and thereby retain everything of interest. A fine rogues gallery of comic performers – headed by the peerless William Moore as Captain Cuttle – helps to keep things ticking along nicely although the family drama between Dombey and Florence is never overshadowed. In general, performances across the serial are very strong although Douglas Mann as young Rob Toodle does overact somewhat (luckily his part isn’t a particularly large one).

Director Joan Craft had already helmed a number of Charles Dickens adaptations, although the survival rate of her serials is sadly quite low. Both The Old Curiosity Shop (featuring Patrick Troughton as Quilp – his favourite role) and Martin Chuzzlewit are completely missing although odd episodes from A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield do exist. More encouragingly, her 1968 version of Nicholas Nickleby remains in the archives, so hopefully a release from Simply might occur in the future.

Her directorial style isn’t dramatic or showy (there’s few of the flourishes that can be seen in Alan Bridges’ Great Expectations) but she still manages to ensure that the story unfolds at a decent pace. The production style is as you’d expect from a programme of this era – mostly studio sequences recorded on videotape, with occassional brief film inserts.

The episodes are a mixture of telerecordings and original videotape masters. The episodes which still exist on videotape are obviously the best quality ones. although since the telerecordings are also of a very high standard the jump between the different formats isn’t as great as it could have been. Overall, the picture quality (considering the unrestored nature of the source materials) is very good. The sound is generally clear although some of the telerecorded episodes (episode eleven especially) are somewhat crackly in places.

Thanks to the first-class cast who rarely put a foot wrong, Dombey & Son is another impressive Dickens adaptation.  Highly recommended.

Dombey & Son is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

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Gary Raymond & John Carson

Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Production Stills

A series of production stills from Great Expectations. Review here.

Great Expectations (BBC, 1967) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.

As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.

So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….

Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow).  A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.

Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired.   Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest.  Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD.  Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.

Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential.  Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood.  Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens.  Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).

The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.

John Tate & Christopher Guard

John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.

Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.

Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.

If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.

Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.

Francesca Annis, Maxine Audley & Christopher Guard

Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.

The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of statis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).

Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.

The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!

Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle

Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t.  Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.

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Maxine Audley, Francesca Annis & Gary Bond

The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).

Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught?  Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).

Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.

This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.

The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).

Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention.  Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today.  Warmly recommended.

Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017.  RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Bernard Hepton & Gary Bond

1950’s/1960’s BBC Charles Dickens Classics to be released by Simply Media – July 2017

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It’s very pleasing to see that a number of 1950’s/1960’s BBC Classic Serial adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels are due shortly from Simply Media.  Three have been confirmed for release on the 3rd of July 2007 – Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Dombey & Son.

Below is a little more detail about them.

Our Mutual Friend.  Adapted by Freda Lingstrom and broadcast in twelve episodes during 1958/59.  Paul Daneman, Zena Walker, David McCallum, Richard Pearson, Rachel Roberts and Robert Leach head the cast, whilst many other familiar faces – Rachel Gurney, Peggy Thorpe-Bates, Wilfred Brambell, Melvyn Hayes and Barbara Lott – also appear.

Great Expectations.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in ten episodes during 1967.  Gary Bond, Francesca Annis, Neil McCarthy, Richard O’Sullivan, Peter Vaughan and Bernard Hepton are the major players in this one whilst there’s also plenty of quality to be found lower down the cast-list (Ronald Lacey, Jon Laurimore and Kevin Stoney amongst others).

Dombey & Son.  Adapted by Hugh Leonard and broadcast in thirteen episodes during 1969.  A typically strong cast is headed by John Carson as Mr Dombey with Clive Swift, Pat Coombs, Ronald Pickering and Davyd Harries amongst the other familiar faces appearing.

And with three further releases to come in late August – Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962) and Bleak House (1959) – the next few months look to be good for those who enjoy classic BBC B&W drama.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast between May and September 1967, The Further Adventures of the Musketeers (based on Dumas’ novel Twenty Years After) was a sixteen-part serial which followed on from the previous years adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

Brian Blessed and Jeremy Young returned as Porthos and Athos, but there were also two important changes.  Joss Ackland took over the role of d’Artagnan from Jeremy Brett whilst John Woodvine replaced Gary Watson as Aramis.

I have to confess at not being terribly impressed with Brett’s performance as d’Artagnan, so I wasn’t too sorry he didn’t return – although it would have been intriguing to see how he would have handled the older, more cynical character seen in this story.  In The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is young, keen and filled with dreams of heroism.  It’s therefore more than a little jarring when Ackland’s d’Artagnan is introduced at the start of the first episode.

Others may continue to call him a hero, but he’s not convinced.  Although he still holds a commission in the Musketeers, it now appears to be a hollow honour – especially since his three former steadfast friends (Porthos, Aramis and Athos) have all left and gone their separate ways.  When he recalls their old battle cry (“one for all, and all for one”) it’s done so ironically and whilst he bursts onto the screen with an impressive bout of swordplay, it was only to subdue a drunk in a tavern.  Brawling in taverns seems to be something of a comedown for the brave d’Artagnan, as he himself admits.

He’s therefore keen to grasp any opportunity to rekindle the glory days of old and when Queen Anne (Carole Potter) asks for his help, how can he refuse?  Potter was something of a weak link during The Three Musketeers and her rather grating performance continues here. This may be a deliberate acting choice though, as we see over the course of the serial that the Queen is a far from admirable character – instead she’s capricious, vain and frequently misguided.

d’Artagnan pledges his allegiance to the Queen, her young son, King Louis XIV (Louis Selwyn) and Cardinal Mazarin (William Dexter).  They are the orthodox ruling establishment, but the majority of the people seem to side with the imprisoned Prince de Beaufort (John Quentin).

The question of personal morality is key, especially when understanding which side the four Musketeers support.  As we’ve seen, d’Artagnan supports the Cardinal and Queen, but is this because he believes they are the right choice for France or is it just that they’ve offered him a chance to redeem his tarnished honour?

When d’Artagnan meets up with Porthos, his former colleague quickly joins him.  Blessed, a joy to watch throughout the serial, is never better than in his first scene.  He’s the lonely lord of a manor, complaining that his neighbours consider him to be something of a peasant and won’t talk to him, even after he’s killed several of them!  So he agrees to join d’Artagnan, mainly it seems because he’s always keen for a scrap.

But Aramis and Athos are both on the Prince’s side.  They believe their cause is just and Athos regards d’Artagnan’s allegiance to the Cardinal with extreme disfavour.  Athos supports the King, but in his opinion the Cardinal is manipulating both the King and the Queen to serve his own ends. It’s telling that d’Artagnan doesn’t deny this.

Joss Ackland, from his first appearance, is totally commanding as d’Artagnan.  If Brett’s take on the role tended to see him play the character at a hysterical pitch then Ackland is much more restrained and therefore much better. As I’ve said, Brian Blessed is tremendous fun – he gets to shout a lot and has some great comic lines.  John Woodvine, a favourite actor of mine, is excellent as Aramis whilst Jeremy Young once again impresses hugely as Athos.

Although there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of this in The Three Musketeers, at the start of this serial d’Artagnan tells us that Athos was always his mentor and closest friend (essentially a second father to him) so the fact they are on opposing sides means there’s some dramatic scenes between them.

Young, a rather underrated actor I feel, is compelling across the duration of the serial. Athos’ monologue in episode five, after d’Artagnan bitterly rounds on his old friends, is one performance highlight amongst many. “We lived together. Loved, hated, shared and mingled our blood. Yet there is an even greater bond between us, that of crime. We four, all of us, judged, condemned and executed a human being whom we had no right to remove from this world. What can Mazarin be to us? We are brothers. Brothers, in life and death.”

Athos is referring to the murder of his former wife, Milady de Winter. As we’ve seen, her death still preys heavily on his mind – but he’s not the only one. She had a son, Mordaunt, who spends the early episodes vowing vengeance on the men who murdered his mother. As the serial progresses we see that his thirst for revenge makes him a formidable foe. A variety of other plot threads also run at the same time – such as the kidnapping of the boy King, Athos and Aramis’ secret mission to England to rescue King Charles I (d’Artagnan and Porthos are also in England and change sides to fight for the King) and the continuing conflict between Queen Anne and Prince de Beaufort – all of which helps to ensure that the story, even though it lasts sixteen episodes, never feels repetitious.

Plenty of quality actors drift in and out.  Edward Brayshaw (once again resplendent in a blonde wig and complete with a wicked-looking dueling scar) returns as Rochefort, Michael Gothard is suitably villainous as Mordaunt, Geoffrey Palmer is memorable during his fairly brief appearance as Oliver Cromwell, David Garth is remote and aloof as King Charles I, whilst the devotee of this era of television can have fun picking out other familiar faces such as Nigel Lambert, Anna Barry, Morris Perry, Vernon Dobtcheff, David Garfield and Wendy Williams.

The budget was obviously quite decent, as there’s a generous helping of location filming and several notable set-pieces – such as the Prince’s escape from his prison fortress, which sees him absail to safety from the castle ramparts (although the use of illustrations as establishing shots for various locations is never convincing). Generally though, Stuart Walker’s production design is impressive – for example, his studio reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral includes various architectural features from the original. Few would have missed them had they not been there, but it’s a nice example of the trouble taken to be as accurate as possible.

With a number of interconnecting plotlines, there’s certainly a great deal to enjoy in Alexander Barron’s dramatisation.  The episodes set in England may lack a little tension (as we know Charles is doomed to die) but his execution is still a powerful moment.  Athos is under the scaffold, frantically attempting to rescue the King, and is crushed when he realises that all his efforts have come to nothing.  A macabre note is created when Charles’ blood drips through the floorboards onto the numb Athos. Christopher Barry and Hugh David share the directorial duties and although there’s (possibly thankfully) few of the directorial flourishes that made The Three Musketeers notable, they manage to keep things ticking along nicely.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers looks and sounds exactly how you’d expect an unrestored telerecording of this period to look and sound.  It’s perfectly watchable, although the picture is a little grainy and indistinct at times (and the soundtrack can also be somewhat hissy).  A full restoration would have been possible, but as always it’s a question of cost.  Niche titles like this don’t sell in huge numbers, so it’s no surprise that this DVD was a straight transfer of the available materials.

But although the picture quality is a little variable, the story and the performances of the four leads more than makes up for it.  With many classic BBC black and white serials still languishing in the vaults, hopefully sales of this title will encourage more to be licenced in the future.

The Further Adventures of the Musketeers runs for sixteen 25 minute episodes across three DVDs.  It’s released on the 23rd of May 2016 by Simply Media with an RRP of £29.99.