"THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES" (1982) Review
Back in 1982, the BBC turned to 19th century author Anthony Trollope for a seven-part miniseries called ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. The miniseries was based upon the author’s first two Barchester novels about the Church of England.
Directed by David Giles and written by Alan Plater, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” is an adaptation of ”The Warden” (1855) and ”Barchester Towers” (1857). The novels focused upon the the dealings and social maneuverings of the clergy and gentry literature concern the dealings of the clergy and the gentry that go on between the citizens and members of the Church of England in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester. Episodes One and Two, which are adaptations of ”The Warden”, center on the impact upon the Reverend Septimus Harding and his circle when a zealous young reformer named John Bold launches a campaign to expose the disparity in the apportionment of Hiram House, an almshouse for bedesmen, and its income between the latter and its officer, Reverend Harding. Mr. Bold embarks on this campaign out of a spirit of public duty, despite his previously cordial relationship with Mr. Harding and his romantic involvement with the latter’s younger daughter, Eleanor. Mr. Bold attempts to enlist the support and interest of Tom Towers, the editor of The Jupiter, who writs editorials supporting reform of the charity, and a portrait of Mr. Harding as being selfish and derelict in his conduct of his office. Despite the efforts of his bombastic, but well-meaning son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly, to ignore Mr. Bold’s reform campaign, and continue his position as warden of Hiram House. But Reverend Harding concludes that he cannot in good conscience continue to accept such a generous salary and resigns the position. John Bold, who had tried in vain to reverse the injury done to Mr. Harding, returns to Barchester and marries Eleanor.
In the remaining five episodes, based upon ”Barchester Towers”, the beloved Bishop of Barchester dies and many assume that his son, Archdeacon Grantly, will gain the position in his place. However thanks to a new Prime Minister, a newcomer, the Reverend Proudie, becomes the new bishop. His overbearing wife, Mrs Proudie, exercises an undue influence over the new bishop and becomes unpopular with right-thinking members of the clergy and their families. Her interference in the reappointment of the universally popular Mr Septimus Harding as warden of Hiram House is not well received, even though she gives the position to a needy clergyman with a large family to support. Even less popular than Mrs Proudie is the bishop's newly appointed chaplain, the hypocritical Mr. Obadiah Slope, who takes a fancy to Harding's wealthy widowed daughter, Eleanor Bold. He hopes to win her hand in marriage by interfering in the controversy over the wardenship of Hiram House. Due to Mrs. Proudie’s influence, the Bishop and Mr. Slope order the return of Dr. Vesey Stanhope from Italy. Dr Stanhope has been there, recovering from a sore throat for 12 years and has spent his time catching butterflies. His wife and three children accompany him back to Barchester. Dr. Stanhope’s only son also has eyes on Eleanor and her fortune. And the younger of his two daughters, the serial flirt Signora Madelina Vesey Neroni, causes consternation and hostility within Mrs. Proudie and threatens the plans of Mr. Slope.
Over the years, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” has become a highly acclaimed television production amongst costume drama fans and the critics. It also received several BAFTA nominations and won an award for Best Design (Chris Pemsel). Many fans and critics have also viewed it as the production responsible for one of Donald Pleasence’s best roles and the start of Alan Rickman’s fame as a skilled actor. When the miniseries first aired in the United States nearly two years later in October 1984, I tried very hard to enjoy it. I really did. Looking back, I realized that I was too young to really appreciate it and ended up getting bored. I never had any intention of ever watching again. But when I purchased a DVD set featuring ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” and two other miniseries productions based upon Anthony Trollope’s works, I figured that I might as well give it another shot. And I am glad that I did.
"THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES" turned out to be a sharp and funny look at the Church of England during the 1850s. The miniseries was filled with characters that have become so memorable to me that I find it difficult to erase them from my mind. In fact, I can honestly say that the characters really made the miniseries for me – especially characters such as Mrs. Proudie, the Reverend Obadiah Slope, Signora Neroni and the wonderfully charming and sweet, Reverend Harding. But the characters alone did not impress me. I was also impressed by screenwriter Alan Plater’s adaptation of the two novels. In my review of the 2007 miniseries, "CRANFORD", I had complained that it seemed disjointed to me and was more suited as an episodic television series, due to the fact that it was based upon three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novellas. Although ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” was based upon the first two of Trollope’s Barchester novels, it did not seem disjointed to me. Perhaps I felt this way, because the subject of the first two episode – namely Reverend Harding’s position as warden of Hiram House – also had a major impact on the plotlines of the last five episodes. I must admit that my knowledge of the hierarchy of the Church of England barely existed before I saw ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” for the second time. After viewing the miniseries, it is still rather vague. But the controversy over Hiram House and the backstabbing, the romances and the manipulations that occurred between the characters really made watching the miniseries rather fun. There were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. And I could have done without a full sermon from Reverend Slope in Episode Three. But these flaws did not hamper the miniseries in the end.
I found most of the performances in ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” top-notch. Mind you, there were some excursions into hammy acting – notably from Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly, Peter Blythe as the feckless Nigel Stanhope and yes, from Geraldine McEwan as Mrs. Proudie. Even Alan Rickman had a moment of hammy acting in his very last scene. But, the cast was generally first-rate. Despite their moments of hamminess, I must admit that I was very impressed by Hawthorne, McEwan and Rickman. Especially the latter, who gave a star turn as the slippery and obsequious Obadiah Slope. And Clive Swift gave a deliciously subtle performance as the weak-willed Bishop Proudie, who allowed himself to be bullied by his wife and manipulated by Mr. Slope. I was also impressed by Susan Hampshire’s performance as the manipulative and sexy Signora Neroni. The series did not go much into her character’s problems with her Italian husband, despite her negative comments on marriage. But watching her manipulate Rickman’s Reverend Slope really impressed and entertained me. And I also enjoyed Angela Pleasence’s portrayal of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife, Susan Harding Grantly. In many ways, she seemed like a more respectable version of the Signora Neroni – feminine, soft-spoken, a little manipulative and strong-willed. But the one performance that shone above the others for me was Donald Pleasence’s portrayal of the Reverend Septimus Harding. Characters like Reverend Harding usually tend to bore me. But Pleasence’s Reverend Harding was not only interesting, but also entertaining. I enjoyed how he managed to maintain his mild-mannered personality, while displaying a great deal of backbone against the aggressive maneuverings of Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie, and his hostility over the slippery manipulations of Reverend Slope. My only quibble about Pleasence’s performance is that his scenes with Janet Maw, who portrayed Eleanor Harding Bold, left me feeling a bit uneasy. I realize that Reverend Harding and Eleanor had a close relationship, but there were moments – thanks to Pleasence and Maw’s performances – when their interactions seemed to hint a touch of incest. Very creepy.
Does ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” still hold up after twenty-eight years? Perhaps. The miniseries was obviously filmed on video tape. And the pictures are not as sharp as they could be. But I must admit that the photography was rich with color. And I just adored Juanita Waterson’s costume designs, which were shown with great effect in scenes that featured the Proudies’ soirée at the Bishop's residence and the Thornes’ garden party. She effectively captured the styles of mid-Victorian England. Perhaps some of the performances were a little hammy at times. And there were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. But overall, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” was a first-rate production that featured a well-written script by Alan Plater, an excellent cast led by Donald Pleasence and solid direction by David Giles. After twenty-eight years, it remains a sharp and entertaining miniseries for me.