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Sword of Honour (1967)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Sword of Honour (1967)
For Theatre 625, BBC, tx. 2-16/1/1967
3 x 90 min episodes, black and white
Directed byDonald McWhinnie
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerMichael Bakewell
Adapted byGiles Cooper
Original novelEvelyn Waugh

Cast: Edward Woodward (Guy Crouchback); Trader Faulkner (Tommy Backhouse); Kenneth Fortescue (Frank de Souza); Paul Hardwick (Ritchie-Hook); Donald Layne-Smith (Mr Crouchback); Vivian Pickles (Virginia Troy); Anthony Roye (Arthur Box-Bender); James Villiers (Ian Kilbannock)

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The Second World War as experienced by the heir to a prominent aristocratic Catholic family in decline.

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BBC2's Theatre 625 (1964-68) specialised in drama dealing with weighty themes, often in groups of plays. The strand presented adaptations alongside original works, and Evelyn Waugh's 'Sword of Honour' was a perfect candidate for dramatisation. Following the aristocratic Guy Crouchback through the Second World War, Waugh's story was a lengthy treatise on the pursuit of chivalry and the decline of aristocratic tradition.

Originally published as three separate volumes, the story was already conveniently divided for presentation as a trio of television plays. Giles Cooper was well-placed to translate the trilogy to television; he shared with both Waugh and Crouchback an upper-class background and had trained as an army officer during the war - a process depicted in the trilogy - giving him an added insight into the story. Unsurprisingly, Cooper's script is sympathetic to the spirit of the original while making the necessary cuts to streamline the meandering plot of the 700-page story.

Cooper's adaptation emphasises the comedy of the first two instalments, most obviously with the sub-plot about Apthorpe's 'thunder box' (an antique chemical toilet) and Trimmer's bungled PR stunt of a sabotage mission. The third instalment, which includes the deaths of several major characters, is bleaker in tone and it's surprising that Cooper omits the bitter postscript to Crouchback's Yugoslavian posting - the fate of Madame Kanyi - which illustrated the sometimes tragic results of well-meant intervention. Aside from this, all the main plotlines and themes are retained.

As was standard at the time, the bulk of the material was recorded in studio, with only a few short film sequences to depict any essential exteriors. As a result of this, and the project's presumably tight budget, some of the novel's more exotic settings and action-packed sequences had to be downplayed. In place of a scene depicting Guy's disastrous beach landing in Dakar, he is merely shown describing it after the event, and Waugh's lengthy episode on Crete, with the routing and surrender of the British defence, is reduced to a handful of studio scenes with appropriate battle noises off.

Although these restrictions will be obvious to modern audiences, they in no way impeded the drama's success on initial transmission. "I doubt whether a more human play, at once compassionate and deeply sardonic, has ever been done on television", wrote The Times. 'Sword of Honour' was repeated the following year, though sadly Cooper had not lived to see even its first transmission.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Death of glory (1:08)
2. A hero is made (3:12)
3. The path of honour (2:37)
4. Hospital (4:28)
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Cooper, Giles (1918-1966)
Woodward, Edward (1930-2009)
WWII Dramas