by H. R. F. KEATING
rriELEVISION covers a A"' multitude of virtues. Even in the field of serials adapted from the novels of the past we get all the range between The Forsyte Saga (tattle about the neighbours with a guaranteed quota of startling events) and the noble attempt to grasp the meaning of society of Dostoevsky's The Possessed.
Both of these are now drawing to an end. I have sat politely through about half the former, noting that much of it was very well done and that sometimes the level dropped startlingly away, and like a visitor glimpsing the goings-on in an unknown neighbourhood I have tried to show a becoming interest without getting really involved.
But the latter I have watched with complete involvement, although I have to record a certain disappointment with the total result. Partly this must be due to memories of an earlier Dostoevsky adaptation, "The Idiot," which I remember as one of the most compelling pieces of television, or for that matter of drama of any sort, that I have ever seen..
It is one of the shortcomings of the set-up that there is no way of going back and crediting the director and adaptor, whose names I just do not remember. One can pick up a book to refresh one's memory, or with a film classic one can count on seeing an occasional reference that keeps the details fresh in mind, but few people seem to hark back to the best from the box. A BBC-1 reshowing of "The Idiot" would be a national kindness.
Certainly beside it "The Possessed" has appeared a lightweight. In the earlier episodes I thought that a canvas of provincial manners was being lightly sketched in as a background to a central subject of all the mind-altering power one expects from the great Russian. But now that we have got to the core of the book (the final episode on BBC-2 on Saturday, repeated on Thursday) something still seems to be lacking.
I cannot quite lay a finger on the reason. Perhaps it is that the key figure of Pyotr, the young anarchist who influences so many of the people in the provincial Russian town in which the book is set, though brilliantly and consistently played by David Collings comes over as mere mischiefmaker and not as savage manipulator. Perhaps this is even what Dostoevsky intended.
Or perhaps Naomi Capon's direction has failed to pull the deeper feelings out of her cast where they are wanted. It is certainly to be praised for its meticulous detail (an oil-lamp that is lit and flares up smokily, the dedicated nihilist solemnly performing physical jerks) but it seemed to lack the sheer intensity that set the camera breath-takingly prowling in "The Idiot."
But Miss Capon's unslackening meticulousness has produced considerable dividends of pleasure.' It has given us over the weeks a picture of a place and a time that rings astonishingly• true. This, we can take it, is how men and women were in a provincial Russian town a hundred years ago.
This is a considerable virtue, and one it is too easy to take for granted. That it is not achieved without a deal of effort on the part of director, adaptor, designer and cast was proved for me last Thursday when in the same evening that the fourth part of the serial was shown we also had a half * hour adaptation of Frank O'Connor's tolerant and delightful story First Confession which turned out to be a pigs' breakfast, no less, I have seen the production praised and so feel bound to stop off for a few moments just to point out how really bad it was. Nothing at all came over.
The direction contrived to make the smallest piece of physical action look clumsily contrived. The setting, for all its dutiful quota of live animals indoors, made the supposedly slovenly cottage look clean as an Ideal Homes showhouse. And the acting barely managed to convey the outward meaning of the roles let alone the things left unsaid (I pass over such blemishes as one of the principals forgetting her lines and the main child actor being unable to encompass an Irish accent).
From such ineptitudes "The Possessed" was far removed. The setting, as I have said, was faultless. The acting was uniformly of a high 'standard, entirely free from those affectations which actors have to use to give a necessary gloss of individuality to parts lacking any real human qualities (A good current example is Peter Wyngarde playing a novelist-agent in the routine thriller series Department S).
But again it must be said that not all the acting reached the absolutely highest standards.
Occasionally Dostoevsky's extraordinary characters would look merely like extraordinary characters and not like men and women behaving, as men and women occasionally do, in utterly extraordinary ways.
That even the oddest
creatures Dostoevsky cared to present us with can be shown to be real human beings has been amply proved by the performance of Joseph O'Conor (splendid as Old Jolyon of the Forsytes, too) as Stepan Verhovensk y, foolish Frenchspouting quintessence of provinciality at its most aspiring and most pathetic. One might have thought the character a bit too much to believe: Mr. O'Conor believed, and we believed after him.
His performance did not a little to set the seal on the serial as a study of provincial life — ingrowing, silly, real, trivial and immensely important to those taking part in it —of a classic rightness that induced while watching a state of calm wonder. Alas only that it was not something more.
Could be good
Saturday, ITV: "An Hour of Love." Two plays by Roger Smith that try and take a deeper look than sometimes at aspects of the everabsorbing subject.
Saturday, BBC-2: "Chronicle." Nesta Pain gives us a dramatised documentary on St. Thomas a Becket with ninetenths of the dialogue from contemporary records and a more disenchanted view than usual.
Tuesday, BBC-1: "Matters of Life and Death." Christopher Brasher takes a look at the doctors who have to decide on prolonging life.