Among the major events of the new year in television will be Brideshead Revisited, a meticulous adaptation by John Mortimer of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, already a huge success at home in England. Beginning January 18 as part of the PBS "Great Performances" showcase, Brideshead is a sumptuous II-week epic, almost a page-by-page playback of Waugh's book about an aristocratic Catholic family over a time span of two decades. Jeremy Irons (the brilliant actor who nearly stole The French Lieutenant's Woman from Meryl Streep) plays Charles Ryder, who first visits Brideshead at the invitation of his wayward Oxford school chum, Sebastian (Antohony Andrews). The acting throughout is English classic: Laurence Oliver and Claire Bloom as Lord and Lady Marchmain. Sebastian's estranged parents; Diana Quick as his sister Julia; John Gielgud as Charles's father (in several of the driest deadpan comic bits between father and son I have ever witnessed). It's all quite civilized and literary, aimed at the highest brows, but scintillatingly wicked.
Even when prestigious TV drama isn't made in Britain, there seems to be an English complexion to the enterprise. Of ABC Television's first big trio of filmed specials for 1982, the initial offering was Bernard Pomerance's award-winning play The Elephant Man, co-starring Philip Anglim and Kevin Conway from the original Broadway cast. If you miss it, watch for the reruns. This is the moving, imaginative version in which Anglim, as England's John Merrick, acts his repulsive deformity without special make-up, a theatrical trick that takes getting used to but works surprisingly well on TV. Superior in every way to the 1980 film with John Hurt.
Subsequent ABC presentations, due early this year though still not time-and-date listed as we go to press, include Somerset Maugham's The Letter, starring Lee Remick, and The Victims, with Kate Nelligan, both from Warner Bros. Why anyone would remake the Maugham tale, a 1940 Bette Davis classic directed by William Wyler, is a mystery to me. What's new this time around is that the script, altered to suit today's freer moral climate, makes the heroine about as likable as a tarantula, a murderous, conniving bitch with few redeeming qualities---and there's no hedging, either, about the casual, inbred racism of British colonists in Malaya circa 1939. Though always a good actress. Remick is a little foolhardy to take on this particular golden oldy. The strong Maugham story helps her a lot, but compared with Davis' extra-special delivery of The Letter, Remick's reasonable facsimile looks like regular mail.
ABC's The Victims, another effort to dramatize the trauma of rape, brought England's Nelligan (excellent opposite Donald Sutherland in the suspense film Eye of the Needle) to play a role that doesn't strike me as making her trip worth while. This woman knows her assailant and joins forces with other female victims to trap him because the law seems to favor the criminal (played by Howard Hesseman of WKRP in Cincinnati). Ken Howard plays Kate's boyfriend, who loses patience with her. So did I, and Victims winds up rather muddled, an apparent warning to violated women that they'd better think twice before exacting vigilante justice.
Masterpiece Theatre's seven-part special, The Flame Trees of Thika, runs from early January through mid-February in the usual Sunday-p.m. time slot (check local listings for repeat telecasts). British colonials raising coffee in Kenya before World War One are the subject of Elspeth Huxley's memoir adapted for TV by John Hawkesworth (already known for Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street). It's interesting to see former child star Hayley Mills, now a warmly attractive woman of 35 or so---ye gods---playing Mom to a child actress (Holly Aird) who does precisely the sort of thing little Miss Mills used to do. Although it sometimes smacks of Disneyish blandness, with natives right out of National Geographic laying on local color against breath-taking African landscapes. this child's garden of animal lore has witch doctors, and worse, in the wings. There's even a bit of illicit lust and extramarital passion under the tropic sun when Ben Cross (charismatic star of the film Chariots of Fire) shows up as a great white hunter-horse trader doggedly wooing a planter's capricious young wife. Flame Trees is mild-mannered but exotic throughout---well schooled English reticence at war with untamed nature.
PBS' new American Playhouse series, airing from January 12 through June, is an ambitious potpourri of Americana, with presentations varying in length from one to two hours. The promising opener is an original John Cheever teleplay, The Shady Hill Kidnapping, with George Grizzard starred. Satirizing TV itself, as well as the soap-opera nothingness of life in suburbia, which is Cheever country, Shady Hill concerns a stray tyke whose family thinks he's kidnaped, a minitragedy that scarcely seems more important than shopping for bargains at the mall. The crisis is interrupted regularly by bogus TV commercials---these written by Cheever, too---with Celeste Holm peddling Elixircol, "the true juice of youth," a costly substance that she believes has caused cancer in lab animals. It's hit-or-miss comedy but may be a sign of better things to come. After King of America, a Greek immigrant story, and Seguin, an epic about a 19th Century Texas patriot who became mayor of San Antonio and was later ostracized by his fellow Texans. American Playhouse plunges into February with a trio of comedies: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Who Am I This Time?, with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken, followed by Ray Bradbury's Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine, directed by Ralph Rosenbloom, formerly Woody Allen's film editor. Next is Come Along with Me, a bit precious, from an unfinished Shirley Jackson novel. co-adapted by Joanne Woodward, who also makes her directorial debut with a cast headed by Estelle Parsons, Barbara Baxley and Sylvia Sidney. The end of February and the start of March bring two Broadway adaptations to TV: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf and the musical based on Studs Terkel's best seller, Working. Also scheduled is a fair-to-middling two-hour presentation, Carl Sandburg---Echoes and Silences, with John Cullum. The fare looks rich, varied and---for a change---indigenous.
Beginning January 25, Public Broadcasting inauguates an 11-week "aesthetic joy ride" for purists---particularly for music lovers---who need more to sustain them than TV dramatizations of Great Books. Bernstein/Beethoven will offer Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra in all nine Becthoven symphonies, along with the Missa Solemnis and other works. If you don't already love Beethoven (and I am an eager but untutored ear in the world of classical music), you will by the time Bernstein is through with you. While he calls himself "a compulsive teacher," he is refreshingly free of pedantry, noting that "it would not be disastrous if you missed one or two programs." When Bernstein's not wielding his baton or imparting insights. Maximilian Schell fills the gaps with Beethoen biographical notes and anecdotes.
Another of those globe-trotting educational epics offered by PBS, Life on Earth has writer-narrator David Attenborough (actor Richard's brother) in 13 weekly episodes beginning in mid-January. This fact-packed series, judged from a sampling, is painstakingly photographed, ambitious, informative---a short course in evolution abrim with quaint and curious data about "elephant shrews, owl monkeys and star-nosed moles," to cite but a few. That kind of thing.
Coming up on the tube: PBS' Brideshead Revisited, three big ones from ABC.