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Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)
London Film Prodns / RCTV Inc. for BBC2, tx. 10/11-22/12/1982
7 x 55 minutes, colour
DirectorDavid Giles
ProducerJonathan Powell
ScriptAlan Plater
MusicDerek Bourgeois

Cast: Donald Pleasence (Septimus Harding); David Gwillim (John Bold); Barbara Flynn (Mary Bold); Angela Pleasence (Mrs Grantly); Nigel Hawthorne (Dr Grantly); Alan Rickman (Obadiah Slope); Geraldine McEwan (Mrs Proudie); Clive Swift (Dr Proudie); Susan Hampshire (Signora Madeline Neroni)

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The rivalries and foibles of the 19th century church played out in the surprisingly lively diocese of Barchester.

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Produced to mark the centenary of Trollope's death in 1882, Alan Plater's adaptation spans the first two (of seven) novels in the author's Barchester series, The Warden and Barchester Towers. The result is, simply, one of the best television literary adaptations ever made - sophisticated drama for grown-ups, which is also very funny, although the material - obscure 19th century church politics - sounds unpromising. The humour, of course, arises from Trollope's great understanding of flawed human nature, expressed through some sublime characterisation: the perpetually splenetic Archdeacon Grantly, the oily and ambitious Slope, the ineffectual and henpecked Bishop Proudie and his proud and prudish wife. Plater is the ideal adapter for this, even though he took much of his dialogue directly from the novel.

But the series almost didn't happen; it was a last-minute substitute for a more expensive plan to adapt Stendhal's The Scarlet and Black (ultimately made in 1993). An earlier Trollope adaptation, The Pallisers (BBC, 1974), had been a great success but producers feared audiences would not warm to the themes of the Barchester novels. Plater himself had never read them before, but he found they had a universality because they dealt with all the potentially comic human failings of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust - and this in those who were supposedly pious, charitable and virtuous! They seemed modern. One senses the relish with which Plater writes Slope's first sermon (which is against church music), which Trollope himself omitted to do.

The casting of the main characters is pure joy and has some successful surprises. Donald Pleasence, familiar from many menacing roles, is delightful as the benign, music-loving and high-principled Warden, who plays an imaginary cello in moments of stress and can be powerful in his rare outbursts of anger. In Barchester Towers, Mrs Proudie is physically large and intimidating; Geraldine McEwan is petite and feminine, but steely and terrifying - she swishes a mean skirt. Alan Rickman is too attractive for Slope but is suitably creepy in his hypocrisy (compare Uriah Heep in Dickens' David Copperfield). Susan Hampshire also scores strongly as upstaging temptress Madeline Neroni, Mrs Proudie's arch rival. McEwan and Nigel Hawthorne were successfully reunited three years later in very different roles for Mapp and Lucia (ITV, 1985).

Recently, Trollope seems to be back in fashion again, with two major series from the BBC: The Way We Live Now (2001) and He Knew He Was Right (2004).

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Extract (5:11)
2. Extract (5:55)
3. Extract (5:44)
Complete episode (54:00)
Hampshire, Susan (1937-)
Hawthorne, Sir Nigel (1929-2001)
McEwan, Geraldine (1932-)
Plater, Alan (1935-2010)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Rickman, Alan (1946-)
TV Literary Adaptation