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Fortunes of War (1987)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Fortunes of War (1987)
BBC/WGBH (Boston)/Primetime Television for BBC, 11/10-22/11/1987
7 x 60 minutes, colour
Directed byJames Cellan Jones
Produced byBetty Willingale
ScreenplayAlan Plater
From the novels byOlivia Manning
PhotographyJohn Record

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Guy Pringle), Emma Thompson (Harriet Pringle), Charles Kay (Dobson), Alan Bennett (Lord Pinkrose), Harry Burton (Sasha Drucker), Ronald Pickup (Prince Yakimov)

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Following the outbreak of the Second World War, newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle are eventually forced to abandon their lives in Romania and move first to Greece and then to Egypt, putting a great strain on their marriage.

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Fortunes of War was the BBC's riposte to Granada's hugely successful serials Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) and Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). Shot on a big budget on location in Greece and Egypt, with Yugoslavia (as it then was) standing in for Romania, it was adapted by Alan Plater from Olivia Manning's six autobiographical novels derived from her experiences with husband Reggie Smith between 1939 and 1943. Initially the point of view is predominantly Harriet Pringle's (Emma Thompson, in her first major dramatic role), but as her marriage to Guy (Kenneth Branagh) begins to stumble and events conspire to keep them apart, we understand more of Guy as he grieves, erroneously believing that his wife has been killed.

Somewhat incongruously, and much to Plater's displeasure, for financing reasons the serial was divided into seven parts rather six, which inevitably unbalances the symmetry of the story. Plater rightly favoured the earlier portion, which gets the extra episode, since it is clearly the greater of the two trilogies.

The casting is uniformly excellent, with Ronald Pickup perfectly cast as the dreadful yet somehow endearingly child-like Prince Yakimoff. Just as good are Robert Stephens and Alan Bennett, while the understated Charles Kay is particularly affecting as the reserved Dobson. Both Branagh and Thompson are superb, and their brief, emotionally devastating reconciliation scene in the final episode is exceptional. This story of dispossessed Europeans eschews most of the trappings of prestigious 1980s heritage productions, particularly the appeal to exotic landscapes and expensive d├ęcor, thanks largely to Plater's self-effacing script, which emphasises humanist values in a time of transition while ridiculing those upper-crust authority figures and attitudes which lie at the heart of most literary and 'period' drama. The serial's complex interconnecting stories and large cast of characters do, though, provide many of the requisite pleasures of the genre. Particularly notable is the avoidance of the decadence implicit in Brideshead and Jewel, while, unusually, the protagonist Guy is not just a liberal but a left-wing idealist who is as much pro-Russia as he is anti-Fascist.

Although the gregarious Guy is at the heart of the serial, the narrative focuses on how Harriet finally and permanently steps out of his shadow, while the final image, of the reunited couple perched quietly on top of a pyramid gazing across the desert, backed by Richard Holmes' haunting and melancholy music, is pleasingly open-ended.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Top secret meeting (2:25)
2. Missed appointment (4:41)
3. Shakespeare (2:53)
4. Points of view (2:16)
Anwar, Tariq (1945-)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Branagh, Kenneth (1960-)
Plater, Alan (1935-2010)
Thompson, Emma (1959-)
TV Literary Adaptation
WWII Dramas