TV's exquisite version of Hardy's England

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Day After the Fair PBS, Sunday and March 13, 9-10 p.m. Stars: Hannah Gordon, Kenneth Haigh, Anna Massey, Sammi Davis, Martyn Stanbridge. Screenplay: Gillian Freeman based on a Thomas Hardy story. Director: Anthony Simmons. Producer: Louis Marks for BBC. ``Masterpiece Theatre'' follows its seven-hour triumph - ``Fortunes of War'' - with a two-hour triumph, in which Thomas Hardy links sensibilities with Edmond Rostand. This BBC adaptation of Hardy's ``Cyrano''-like short story, ``On the Western Circuit,'' makes for a bittersweet, pepper-and-salt tale of repressed passion and sensuous yearning.

The love-starved wife of a wealthy brewer ghostwrites responses for her illiterate maid to the passionate love letters of a barrister suitor. The letters become the wife's only emotional outlet, and she cannot restrain her envy when the maid takes the suitor as her groom, despite the fact that he has discovered the deceit. Tragedy looms for all concerned in class-conscious, rural Victorian England.

Hannah Gordon, whom viewers may remember as the second Mrs. Bellamy in ``Upstairs, Downstairs,'' portrays the sad mistress of the household with extraordinary sensitivity, while Sammi Davis plays the maid with a kind of sensuous hysteria.

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The production offers a magically authentic picture of the Victorian countryside and the social attitudes of its inhabitants, as contrasted to the city's.

The drama also probes the deep frustrations and passionate promiscuous behavior at various levels of society.

Despite the gorgeous cinematography and costuming, there's a marvelously suffocating air of frustration in much of this miniseries. It all adds up to a sensitive and exquisite depiction of an era.

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