A lush, watchable Dickens story

Norman rosemont, a man who is a TV industry all by himself, has taken lush readable international classics like "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Man In The Iron Mask," "Les Miserables," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Little Lord Fauntleroy" -- and now Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" -- and turned them all into lush, watchable TV films.

With "A Tale of Two Cities," (CBS, Tuesday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings), executive producer Rosemont has, you guessed it, done it again.

Sometimes called one of the greates yarns of all time, "A Tale" is full of the vim, vigo, violence, and emotion, as well as the physical bloodletting, of the French Revolution. Adapted by John Gay, directed by Jim Goddard this new version of the classic was co-produced by Marble Arch Productions, but personnel variations don't seem to matter in Rosemont productions, just as long as Norman himself is around to pull the thing together.

Formula? Well, yes -- the formula seems to be enough money for authentic location shooting and costly costumes, good solid actors who may or may not be stars (although Chris Sarandon, who plays the dual DarnayCarton role, may be considered a star by some), good solid literary properties in the first place -- and a heavy dose of safe, money-in-the-bank good taste.

Ingenuity, daring, innovation? Those qualities seem to be left for other filmmakers willing to take chances. But Norman Rosemont productions deal with time-tested material. And almost inevitably, they are winners.

This is not meant as a backhanded compliment -- but, on second thought, perhaps it is.

In any event, the only quarrel I have with "A Tale" is the casting of Billie Whitelaw as Madame Defarge, the vindictive symbol of vengeful conscience. I found her to be simply a nasty shrew rather than an avenging angel. But otherwise I found little to fault in this rousing production.

What's next on Mr. Rosemont's list? Rumor has it that a Rosemont "Ivanhoe" is in the offing. 'Big Blonde'

Every now and then, Public Broadcasting surprises everybody -- including itself -- and tries to break out of its BBC mold by doing some original dramatic programming. The results are usually interesting, if not always successful.

Actually, most often the results are ambivalent -- good tries, partially successful, a mixture of literate integrity and pop ambition. Sort of like Patti Smith singing with the New York Philharmonic.

Most recently WGBH/Boston's "The Scarlet Letter" almost worked, WNET/NY's "The American Short Story" worked very well when the academics didn't meddle too much, and only a few weeks ago "Life on the Mississippi" proved to be a nobly dull endeavor, worth doing even if a bit on the pedantic side.

A few years back, Jac Venza, the adventurous executive producer of "Great Performances" plucked an old minor Paul Gallico short story almost out of thin air and turned it into a remarkably entertaining full-length musical drama, "Verna, USO Girl" which will show up on the big screens in a new outsized Hollywood version one of these days. Now Mr. Venza has found what he evidently perceived to be another lily of the field -- Dorothy Parker's sketch, "Big Blonde" -- and turned it into a big, blowsy, 90-minute peony of a film.

"Big Blonde" (PBS, Monday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is slight story magically metamorphasized into an even slighter full-length movie. It is outsized and overblown -- a tiny gherkin masquerading as a pickle. Well, you can't win 'em all. This "Great Performances" special, adapted without distinction by Ellen M. Violett, was directed imperceptibly by veteran TV director kirk Browning, who should have let long enough alone. It stars one of my favorite film personalities, Sally Kellerman, who is an infinitely more interesting human being than she is an actress, although she did well as the veteran trouper in "Verna." She's lovely to watch as Hazel, the big good-hearted blonde upon whom everybody imposes and who turns to alcohol and much characterization can one draw from a series of modish hats and hairdos?

Miss Kellerman substitutes hats, hairdos, and authentic costumes for any real depth of undestanding, but then neither Miss Parker nor her adapter provided this usually charming actress vercy much to work with. The customers (especially the hats) and the decor will hold your attention -- for a while.

However, the real star of the production is the wallpaper (aside from John Lithgow, who plays the inexplicably deserting husband with great depth of nonunderstanding). There is a seemingly unending stream of period paper, often more interesting than the unending stream of bootleg liquor, speakeasies, casual sex, and depressing depravity portrayed.

There's lots of period music, too -- around 30 songs arranged and conducted by Glenn Osser. But, I warn you, you'd better like "Bye Bye,Blackbird" since it is reprised at least ten times.

"Big Blonde" is a period piece -- out of its period. Too long, too shallow, too ambitious for what it has to offer. Maybe somebody should try it as a short story. . . .

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