Fine TV time found in UK drama, mystery

It's a keeper. A&E presents Longitude (July 9, 8 p.m.-12 midnight), and many viewers will want to revisit this outstanding British miniseries again and again. Beautifully told, the story concerns one lowly English carpenter, John Harrison, who solved one of the most important scientific problems of the 18th century - a sea clock that provided a reliable way for seamen to find longitude at sea.

And if that sounds like a schoolroom lesson, it's not. Like most human discoveries that change the world, this one came despite intrigue by enemies (and rivals), a backward board of "experts" and "scientists" who

couldn't understand the significance of the man or his discovery, and personal and financial difficulties that held up his work many times over.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Dava Sobel, the film was written and directed by Charles Sturridge ("Brideshead Revisited" and "Gulliver's Travels"). And his adaptation is unusually true to the spirit of that fine book. But much of the credit for this excellent film goes to a brilliant performance by Michael Gambon ("The Insider") as Harrison - a man so dedicated to his task he spent 50 years of his life pursuing it.

And that task seems simple in the computer age. But hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved by it, as so many had perished without it, at sea. Virtually every sea captain had lost his way, despite all that stars, compasses, and charts could do. Latitude was fixed, but longitude was much more difficult to decipher. So the rocky shoals of many an island trapped ships tripped off course.

Harrison's invention was hidden from us until a retired British Naval officer, Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons), tracked Harrison's clocks down and restored them after World War I, returning Harrison to his rightful place in the history of science.

So the film jumps backwards in time to Harrison's era and then forward to Gould's, as it tells parallel stories of dedication and sacrifice and ultimate triumph by both these unlikely heroes. The filmmaking is excellent, as we move seamlessly between these two eras.

The Brits furnish Americans with another marvelous series in Jonathan Creek, a comedy thriller on BBC America (Sundays, beginning July 9 at 8 p.m.). In a culture that regularly produces improbable and irresistible detectives, "Jonathan Creek" is one of the most unusual and beguiling.

A magician who devises tricks for other performers, Creek has a gift for solving apparently unsolvable murders - especially those with a aura of the "mystical" about them. He has an ability to see through illusions, to look at everything in a totally unconventional way that makes him a must-see for mystery buffs.

Stand-up comic Alan Davies, who stars as the diffident Creek, is a marvelous actor, whose shaggy hair disguises a handsome face. His Creek joins forces with one of the pushiest reporters ever to grace a TV series. Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin) is nobody's idea of a beauty, yet romantic sparks fly between the two friends, and there's something endearing - and amusing - about their covert courtship.

In the first episode, "The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish," a young man sells his soul to the devil and his wife is overwhelmed by the changes in their fortunes. The fun thing about the show is that all the pieces of the puzzle are visible, if you have the knack to see through the obvious.

Yet another film about the British surfaces this week on PBS. Finest Hour (July 10 and 17, 8 p.m.) is a very fine two hours of documentary investigation. Churchill was elected, but even his own Cabinet had little faith in him. Newly discovered archival footage, eyewitness accounts, and a gripping script make this one of the best documentaries so far this season.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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