British imports arrive in style

Two multipart sagas offer history and fantasy

The British are coming - again. This week marks the arrival of two imports filled with high English style, from the stiff upper lips of a modern-day family enduring the rigors of the "1900 House" to the fantastical cautionary classic, "Gormenghast."

Both are four-part sagas, the first unfolding within the intimate confines of a single family, the second encompassing a mythical kingdom over a generation of wars and internecine struggles.

In a twist on today's rage for reality TV, The 1900 House (PBS, Monday, June 12, 9 p.m., check local listings) features the Bowlers, every bit a modern family with three girls and a boy, living in a converted London town house as if it were the year 1900. A modern house was transformed for the purpose, and the six Bowlers, who hail from nearby Somerset, moved in for three months. By the end of their stay, all six felt they'd learned valuable lessons about life at the turn of the 20th century.

"In the 1900s, we didn't have the technology," says the father, Paul Bowler, "so everything you had to do took a certain amount of time. Today, we can go down to the shops and buy something and if it doesn't work, we can throw it in the dustbin, because it's disposable. "In the 1900s, you couldn't do that. Everything you had counted for that day," he says, adding "you had to slow down, you had to think."

During the three-month period, it was the mom, Joyce, who undertook the brunt of the hard labor demanded by a house with no central heating or hot water. But by the end of their stay, she says, she did come to appreciate certain aspects of life in an earlier time.

"Somehow, the things we did mattered more," she says. "I think if you waited a very long time for a kettle to boil, and you've warmed the pot and you're making your tea, you appreciate that cup of tea so much more than if you just dashed it out in the kitchen."

On the other end of the scale from this intimate portrait, Gormenghast (BBC America, Saturday, June 10, 8:30-10:30 p.m.) is a large-canvas saga, hailed in Britain, where the series has already begun, as the most ambitious drama ever produced by the BBC.

"It is a monumental saga, almost on a par with Tolkien or C.S. Lewis," says Paul Lee, the chief operating officer of the cable channel BBC America, which has the first-run American rights to the show (it will air later this year on PBS).

Based on a British trilogy of novels that have become cult classics, the show faithfully re-creates the story. It follows the rise of an upstart kitchen hand who slowly takes over a kingdom, at first appearing to be noble but eventually revealing his true tyrannical and murderous nature.

Written while the author, Mervyn Peake, was training to be a World War II trench gunner, the story reflects his experiences as one of the first allies into the death camps after the war's end. Mr. Peake, who was also a painter, used his writing as a thinly veiled allegory about the abuses of Hitler and Mussolini.

But it is not a history lesson. "It's an epic saga in one of the most beautiful worlds you've ever seen," says series producer Estelle Daniel. "There's romance, there's murder, there's comedy. There are floods, there are fires. In fact, in total there are six murders, three tragic deaths, and two seductions. I don't think you'll be bored."

"After we launched 'Gormenghast' in the UK," Ms. Daniel says, "I overheard my teenage son saying to one of his friends, 'It's like 'Richard III' crossed with 'Alice in Wonderland,' with a guest appearance from Hamlet."

While American audiences may not be expected to see the classic British allusions, director Andy Wilson suggests there are other reference points that will pull audiences in.

"It's very similar to 'Star Wars' in structure, in that there's a mythic daddy, a mythic reluctant prince, and a mythic mad queen, if you like." All these iconic characters provide the same sort of mythic structure that underlies "Star Wars." "You connect with it on that level," Mr. Wilson says.

Filmed at Britain's Shepperton Studios, the show was shot on 120 sets to create what the producers say is an utterly original world.

"People keep asking us all the time to do something different," says veteran British actor, Christopher Lee, who plays the character Flay. "And we've certainly done that. Not only different, but unexpected."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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