New York — Will the redcoats never surrender? While American TV bombards British TV with pure mindless entertainment series like "laverne and Shirley," good old Auntie Beeb (BBC) is busy trying to prove that Britannia rules the airwaves by infiltrating American TV (through PBS) with more of those impeccable miniseries.
As a matter of fact, the US gets only the best of British TV. Some of their worst is even worse than our worst.
This weekend the BBC is at it again, threatening our channels with challenging quality!
It's a BBC weekend on Public Broadcasting Service with a Masterpiece Theater presentation of Dostoevsky's "Crime And Punishment" premiering on Sunday (9-10 p.m. and three succeeding Sundays, check local listings for premiere and repeats). There is also a Great Performances presentation of a six-part miniseries version of John Le Carre's book "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" premiering on Monday (8-9 p.m. and five succeeding Mondays, check local listings for premier and repeats).
Both shows crossed the Atlantic from the land of BBC under other auspices. Isn't it about time BBC insisted upon proper credit for its productions, instead of allowing themselves to be hidden under the bushel basket of WGBH or WNET? If MTM Productions can use the symbol of a meowing cat, why not a roaring lion for BBC? Or, if MGM objects, roaring John Bull.
Two of England's most illustrious contemporary actors enact the starring roles in both PBS/BBC series -- John Hurt as Raskolnikov in "Crime" and Alec Guinness as George Smiley in "Tinker." The American contribution -- outside of dollars, that is -- comes in the form of commentary on "Crime" by the ubiquitous Alistair Cooke, and on "Tinker" by the not-so-ubiquitous Robert MacNeil.
MacNeil has by far the most difficult job because, while the Dosctoevsky story line is familiar to everybody, the LeCarre plot starts thick and then proceeds to thicken immuasurably throughout the six hours. Unless you are a die-in-the-tweed LeCarre buff, chances are you will need help to understand what is happening. If you thought "Shogun" was complex, it was child's play compared with "Tinker," which promises to substitute "moles" (double-agents) for SAmurai in the lives of American TV viewers. John Hurt
You have undoubtedly seen and admired Mr. Hurt in either or both of his two most recent TV appearances in America, as the fascinating "Naked Civil Servant" and as the evil Caligula in "I, Claudius." And you will be hearing even more about this extraordinary work in a film version of "Elephant Man."
Mr. Hurt takes Dostoevsky's classic tale of a student's intellectual -- and physical -- fascination with the nature of crime and turns it into a slowly developing horror tale that claims a potential for violence within all of us. Although the mainly videotaped BBC image of Russia's St. Petersburg looks a bit too Londonish for comfort, and the whole production reeks too much of steak-and-kidney-pie gentility rather than peasant borscht-with-potatoes, Mr. Hurt metamorphoses the familiar tale, adapted by the late Jack Pulman (Who also did "I, Claudius") and directed by Michael Darlow, into a somehow simultaneously personal and universal experience.
It is a quietly triumphant virtuoso performance, fascinating to watch episode by episode as this consummate actor delves deeply yet subtly into Raskolnikov's -- and society's -- nature.
Hurt's superb portrayal vividly suggests the Goethe observation that "with only the slightest shift in the balance of my character, there is no crime I cannot commit." To paraphrase that, there seems to be almost no role John Hurt cannot perform. Alec Guinness
We have Alec Guinness's superb work for many years in just about every medium. Finally lured to television, he has managed to give enormous depth of character to a unique but in many ways traditional oh-so-British secret-agent role.
However, even with Robert MacNeil's fore and aft explanations, "Tinker, Tailor" requires a great deal of concentration. This is an impeccably correct BBC production, complete with bowler and three-piece suit. Even its scariness is polite. The plot from LeCarre's best-selling novel of espionage investigates the clandestine world of spying so throughly that you may come to the conclusion that you, yourself, may be a spy in our civilization: after all, aren't we all double agents of sorts?
An absolutely superb cast of mostly British actors which, besides Guiness, includes Ian Bannen, Ian Richardson, Hywell Bennett, Michael Jayston, and American Alexander Knox, renders every word of LeCarre's complex novel into almost but not quite understandable story line.
A warning: If you close your eyes for just a moment, you'd better give up on following the remainder of the plot, unless you listen carefully the next week to MacNeil -- or buy the book and read it. And even then -- as a matter of fact , even if you watch carefully -- you may reach the end of the six hours still mystified as to who is the "mole," what is the "circus" (British intelligence headquarters) and what goes on at its counterpart "Moscow Center."
But the mere fact that some of the goings-on may be incomprehensible to anybody who hasn't read the book shouldn't stop anybody from enjoying a near-perfect production. After all, such reservations didn't seem to affect the popularity and total acceptance of "Shogun" only a week ago on NBC.
Although on the surface as dissimilar as could be, the two productions actually have a great deal in common in that "Crime And Punishment" investigates the notion of violence within all of us, while "Tinker, Tailor" forces us to consider the possibility that in some ways all of us are double agents.
But, besides operating as revelatory parables, both series are simply jolly good shows.