4 August 2004 | DrMMGilchrist
A rattling good yarn for Sunday afternoons in winter...
It's about 20 years since I've seen this, so forgive the haze of nostalgia...
This was a splendid BBC 1 Sunday tea-time serial, of the kind they don't make any more. At 3 hours, it had nearly twice the running time of the various film adaptations, so was able to include more of Hope's plot. It was well-acted: John Woodvine was the definitive Colonel Sapt (a middle-aged military bruiser - C Aubrey Smith was far too genteel, and too old, in the 1937 version!), and Jonathan Morris was a superbly malevolent Rupert von Hentzau to rival Ramon Novarro and Douglas Fairbanks jr's big-screen portrayals.
It was compelling, too: week after week, my friends and I would mark out our territory with cushions in the TV room in University Hall in St. Andrews, to watch it after Sunday afternoon tea. The main weaknesses in it that I can recall are milder than those of the cinema versions. Given the BBC budget, I think there were one or 2 cases of wobbly scenery. Pauline Moran, as Antoinette, seemed too young and girlish, not as much of a contrast with Flavia as she needs to have. Also, although George Irving (Holby City's Mr Meyer!) had the right dark intensity and, at 30, was young enough to be a credible Michael (who is meant to be under 27), the character was played as a shorn-headed, militaristic heavy, which is not the impression I get from the novel. (In Hope's book, Michael, who is referred to as a "mongrel" – the racist implications are clear in German – doesn't get on with the army, the Church hierarchy, or the upper classes, and is the much-loved champion of the urban poor - which suggests a) a rather less stuffy character; and b) that the socio-political morality of the original novel is, to say the least, perverse.) But then, all the adaptations I've seen have taken on trust the values of the narrator character, Rassendyll. Disappointingly, we didn't get the Michael v. Rupert swordfight or Antoinette chasing Rupert with a revolver - presumably because of the impact of the 1937 film, which also omitted these incidents.
But I'd love to see it again, and I hope the BBC will see fit to issue it on DVD at some point.