Books inspire two historical miniseries. ... and PBS finds the Dickens in `David Copperfield' [ cf. Vidal's `Lincoln' says `here's how it might have been'... ]

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David Copperfield PBS, Sundays through April 24, 9-10 p.m., check local listings. Cast: Colin Hurley, Simon Callow, Jenny McCracken, Brenda Bruce, Natalie Ogle, Valerie Grogan, Francesca Hall. Writer: James Andrew Hall from the Charles Dickens novel. Producer: Terrance Dicks. Director: Barry Letts. ``David Copperfield'' has been acclaimed since it was published in 1850 as a classic tale about the repressive Victorian society of Dickens's time.

It chronicles the development from infancy through manhood of a youth from England's emerging middle class - a figure coming of age in the midst of a culture in turmoil, ambivalent in its attitudes toward old established values and newer ones introduced by the Industrial Revolution.

Although ``David Copperfield'' has been interpreted and reinterpreted in print, it's often regarded today as a picaresque vision of a frisky but sensitive young man, tiptoeing through some rather extreme as well as normal problems of growing up. Most often, any autobiographical aspects of the novel are overlooked in a rush to describe it as merely a rousingly good piece of fictional melodrama.

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This stylish ``Masterpiece Theatre'' version of ``David Copperfield,'' however, is different.

It pinpoints the time and place so vividly and concretely that David's emotional journey to self-understanding becomes almost a psychological portrait in today's terms, right down to a hint of wavering sexual identity. And the series is also notable for what it reveals about Dickens himself - elements explained by host Alistair Cooke, using Dickens's friend and biographer John Forster as a source.

Cooke's astute analyses illuminate not only the transitional society of Dickens's day but the author's own place in it. Cooke makes it clear that Dickens used the writing of ``Copperfield'' as a kind of self-cleansing, healing exercise.

Those familiar with the novel know there really is no plot per se; and the drama, too, is simply a series of sketches of David's interactions with the unique characters who pass through his life - Mr. Micawber, Dan Peggotty, Uriah Heep, Great Aunt Betsey, Mr. Murdstone, and David's three loves, Emily, Agnes, and Dora.

Most of these characters - as well as the roles of David at various ages - receive skillful performances that dutifully display the eccentricities of each individual. One can't help noting, though, that while David ages gracefully as the story unfolds, most of the other characters seem to remain fixed in their ages throughout.

It is always fun to see an expertly realized adaptation in one medium of another medium's classic. Here and there, this five-part BBC production chooses its own emphasis, but in the long run it succeeds in the difficult task of compressing a complex novel into miniseries length without compromising purpose or comprehension.

If some of the action isn't quite clear now and then, well, Alistair Cooke is always there to explain it fore and aft.

What's missing in this production is the inspired madness of eccentricity. The characters are too well mannered, too controlled, too studied in their oddness. I missed the thrill of the bravura portrayals of the totally idiosyncratic human beings to be found in the pages of the novel itself.

Old-timers and film buffs who recall the 1935 George Cukor film version of the book may well yearn for the totally outrageous W.C. Fields as Micawber, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey, Maureen O'Sullivan as Dora, and a whole parade of actors such as Lionel Barrymore in cameo roles, which made the movie a festival of character acting. Watch for it on late-night TV and on videocassette.

Meanwhile, though, if you're not ready to pick up the book and start rereading, you'll have a good old Victorian time watching this genteel, restrained new version on ``Masterpiece Theatre.''

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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