Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC Series)

What is this? A movie review? Are flying pigs next? Perhaps, but this was a special exception.

I’m not much of a movie watcher, as my friends and family well know. For the most part, I would rather hold a book than watch a screen, big or small. I do have a few exceptions. I would rather have something to watch when I am ironing, for example, and I appreciate sports on occasion.

I also have a weakness for a well-made British literary series. Pride and Prejudice is probably the best ever, but this one comes close.

The Barchester Chronicles is based on the first two books of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden, and Barchester Towers. The six-book series covers the inhabitants, particularly the clergy and gentry, in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester and its environs. There is some overlap in characters (and with characters in other books, for that matter), but only the first two books concern the same main characters.

The regular reader of my blog is aware that Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors, on the strength of his memorable and complex characters. There are rarely pure heroes or villains in his books, as everyone has a mixture of virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses, admirable and shameful motivations. In short, his characters are more genuinely human than those of most authors.

As one might imagine, this reliance on characterization makes for a challenge in moviemaking. With a minimum of action and an unhurried pace, the filmmaker must tease out the nuances of the characters through the witty dialogue and the skills of the actors.

The casting in this series is extraordinarily well done. Each character is recognizable from the book, and really looks and sounds as expected. There is excellent chemistry between the actors, bringing the viewer into the world of Barchester. As with any truly great movie, one is immersed. One sees, not actors playing parts, but people, as they existed in the imaginations of Trollope and his readers over the last century and a half.

I have no wish to spoil the plots of these excellent novels, so a bare minimum of explanation must suffice.

Mr. Harding is the warden of a retirement “hospital,” a position appointed by the church. His elder daughter is married to Archdeacon Grantley, who is the son of old Bishop Grantley, whose death is one of the major events at the beginning of the second novel. John Bold is a young doctor, whose impeccable character and zeal outrun his judgment of human character.

The events of The Warden, which occur over the first two episodes, concern Bold’s attempt to reform the church sinecure that is the wardenship, while he at the same time falls in love with Mr. Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor.

Barchester Towers, which is considerably longer, unfolds over the remaining five episodes. The deaths of John Bold and Bishop Grantley set the forces of the book in motion. The new bishop, Dr. Proudie, his wife, and the chaplain, Mr. Slope, are from the opposing political and religious faction from the Archdeacon and Mr. Harding. Slope, who is the closest person to a true villain of any character in the books (and perhaps in all of Trollope’s works), antagonizes his opponents, and attempts to play politics with his influence with the weak Bishop. He is interested in the widowed Eleanor, perhaps for her late husband’s fortune. Also in pursuit of the lovely widow are Bertie Stanhope, a feckless and charmingly indigent young aristocrat; and Mr. Arabin, a young clergyman.

As before, the disposition of Eleanor’s hand in marriage, and the corresponding disposition of church offices are the concerns of the plot.

Trollope raises and explores important questions. What does integrity really mean? How does one balance abstract principles with human needs? How is one to be truly good? What differentiates good character from bad? What is the role of kindness in godliness? Trollope embodies the adage of good writing: show, rather than tell. His refusal to set up easy straw men, and insistence on conflicted characters makes his writing thought provoking, rather than didactic.

As I mentioned, the casting is exceptional. I was initially attracted to the series because Mr. Slope is played by the young Alan Rickman, whose acting style seemed perfect for the lugubrious Slope. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better choice after seeing him in the role. He is Mr. Slope. No one else should be allowed to play the part from henceforth.
Alan Rickman as the Rev. Obadiah Slope

The one portrayal that I found a little disappointing was that of Archdeacon Grantley by Nigel Hawthorne. Not that it was bad acting or that it was an inconsistent portrayal. Rather, I felt that Hawthorne played up the Archdeacon’s aggression a bit too much. He seems, dare I say it, to be almost “American” in his passion, rather than “English” in a slow simmer. Again, this is a minor quibble - if I re-read the books, I suspect that I will not find any reason for complaint, just that my mind’s eye had a slightly different picture. If anything, this highlights just how accurate and convincing everyone else was, that this is the only blemish I could identify.

I should also mention the excellent portrayals of minor characters, such as John Bold’s spinster sister Mary (Barbara Flynn), Bunce (one of the retired residents of the hospital, Joseph O’Connor), and journalist Tom Towers (George Costigan).

Also excellent are the portrayals of the henpecked Bishop Proudie and his wife (Clive Swift and Geraldine McEwan, respectively). Mrs. Proudie is properly controlling and vulgar, while the Bishop is simpering, and completely at odds when confronted by the warring forces of his wife and Mr. Slope.

Bertie Stanhope (Peter Blythe), Eleanor (Janet Maw), and Signora Neroni (Susan Hampshire): excellent portrayals all.

I was particularly impressed, however, by the late Donald Pleasence, as Mr. Harding. So many of Trollope’s characters, while not exactly easy to play, at least are guaranteed to come of right if played true to the book. Mr. Harding strikes me as the very hardest type of character to inhabit. He is one of the most admirable persons possible. He is almost impossibly good at heart (although his distaste for conflict nearly does him in), and could easily come off as an insufferable prig. Trollope’s genius is at full flower in this character, who is impossible to dislike. Pleasence re-creates Mr. Harding, from the cello related tics, to the timidly spoken, but simple and profound truths that come from the best part of his heart. The series would be worth watching just for Donald Pleasence alone.

 Donald Pleasence as Mr. Harding

I hesitate to recommend watching any movie before reading the book. I’m old-school that way. However, if one were to pick a time to do this, I could heartily recommend watching this series. It is faithful to the books in detail and in spirit, contains many of the best lines, and will do nothing to spoil the experience of the books.


  1. I am just in the middle of the double-DVD edition of this serie (right after having read the two Trollope's books) and I must agree with you, this serie is a true gem among TV dramas. Actors are all superb, and Pleasence is simply stunning!

    (please pardon my English, I am Italian!)


  2. Rather, I felt that Hawthorne played up the Archdeacon’s aggression a bit too much. He seems, dare I say it, to be almost “American” in his passion, rather than “English” in a slow simmer.

    Oh my God! Really? I've seen plenty of hammy British acting and plenty of subtle American acting. And I've seen plenty of the opposite. You really had to reduce acting styles to nationalities?

    1. I wasn't meaning acting styles. I agree that you can see both styles on both sides of the pond.

      I was meaning more the (stereotypical) difference between the British aristocracy and the American go-getter. Particularly in a story set in the 19th Century, it seemed to me a bit out of character for a sophisticated aristocrat like Grantley to be so gauche. (He certainly isn't that way in the book.) It reminded me more of the way a noveau riche American from that time might have behaved in the same situation.

  3. Watched this series when it first came out and was mesmerized. Just watched it again in 2022 and am mesmerized anew. So very glad that Donald Pleasence was the one to play Septimus Harding. What great tenderness and understanding he brought to the role.