Subtle and superior fare from two British veterans
New York — "We ought to write to Cook's to put us on their Indian tour after the Taj Mahal," cries Col. Tusker Smalley, a leftover relic of the raj, the period when the British ruled India.
Viewers ought to put "Staying On" (PBS, "Great Performances," Monday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) on their personal tour of India -- and the TV dials.
Colonel and Mrs. Smalley decided to stay on in the Himalayan resort town of Simla after the British withdrawal. They were too young to retire and too old to start new careers, according to the colonel. Two decades later, as their colonial world crumbles about them, they realize it has all been a mistake.
The Smalleys are played with impeccable skill by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, 36 years after their quietly triumphant pairing in the movie classic "Brief Encounter." "Staying On," adapted from the novel by Paul Scott, written by Julian Mitchell, and directed by Silvio Narizzano, has already taken several top British TV awards. There are breathtaking views of the location in the Himalayas, where most of the film was shot.
Despite the fact that the Smalleys are uniquely colonial British in their chin-up determination to make a go of it in India, although even they recognize they have become anachronistic, there is a strangely universal aspect to the story. The unexpected depth of the piece is apparent when Mrs. Smalley is offered refuge by a Eurasian who emphasizes her own analagous status as an outcast in society.
Despite the change in circumstances in the new India, the Smalleys hang on to their white-man's-burden arrogance, their snobbery, their impatience with anybody, especially Indian, who refuses to conform to their outdated attitudes. But somehow, as played by these two suberb actors, one feels pity and sympathy for the differing kinds of loneliness each has to bear alone.
Celia Johnson makes Mrs. Smalley into a pitiful, frightened bird, shorn of her plumage, worrying about surviving among the unfriendly natives. The scenes in which she does a lonely, frantic dance of desperation before the mirror are filled with unnerving insight into the repressed character of the woman.
Trevor Howard turns the colonel into a huff-and-gruff but lovable old man determined to see his situation through to the end, despite the recognition that it is all over. His letter of love and responsibility to Mrs. Smalley will have many viewers in tears.
"Staying On" is about time and time shifting, imposing fantasy upon reality. It is about the demise of the British Empire. But it is also about the end of imperialism, physical and psychological, everywhere -- and the fate of those caught between one era and another.
"Staying On" is subtle, sensitive, superior television fare. A chat with Celia Johnson
Celia Johnson is one of those people whose appearance changes very little with the years --mired in the Noel Coward movie "Brief Encounter" 36 years ago. There is a wondrous naive girlishness in her words and gestures.
"I feel I am still promising as an actress," she giggles over lunch. "I played the nurse in the TV Shakespeare Project's 'Romeo and Juliet' last year, and the countess of Rousillon in 'All's Well That Ends well' [PBS, Monday, May 18, 8 - 11 p.m., check local listings]. I didn't think I could do it, so when it was offered to me I said I'd do it only on a sale-or-return basis. We decided I would try it in rehearsal for ten days and, if either of us felt I couldn't do it, I would leave. Well, I didn't leave."
Why is "Brief Encounter," in its time a modest little film about two suburbanites who meet in a train station and carry on an unconsummated love affair, remembered so vividly by so many people?
"It obviously meant a great deal to a lot of people. I think they identify with it because in everybody there's the yearning for something you have to give up. Sometimes you have to conform to society's rules even though you would like not to.
"We won a prize for the film in France and went over to pick it up. The French thought it was so wonderful because it was so deeply descriptive of the hypocrisy of the British. That surprised me. They thought she was wonderfully hypocritical because she didn't have an affair with him. But I think they missed the whole point of the film."
Miss Johnson manages to keep her private life very private. She lives in the country outside Oxford, has three children, and has made many British films and done a lot of British television, with occasional forays into live theater in England. "Although I am thought of as a dramatic actress, I am a very good comedy actress. But mostly I play dotty old women now. 'Staying On' is a romantic role --but she is a bit dotty, isn't she?"
Did Celia Johnson find many vestiges of the British in India?When the French exited from their empire, as in the case of Algeria, the native population tried to erase all signs of the French presence.
"I found that Indians like the British. Many of them seem to be more like the British than the British," she laughs. "But I must admit, the French certainly left better food." Three specials
Much more often than the three commercial networks, public broadcasting often takes advantage of the pool of talent available throughout its system of several hundred affiliated, but nominally independent, stations. Next week there are several documentaries worth putting in your must-see TV diary.
"Lost to the Revolution" (PBS, Monday, 9:30-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a leisurely look at the work of the House of Faberge, mostly at surprise eggs used to entertain the czar and his family in the twilight days of imperial Russia. The documentary, narrated by Yul Brynner, takes a rather one-sided view of Russian history. It was written, produced, and directed by Tim Forbes, of the Forbes magazine family. Forbes owns most of the eggs shown. Forbes is the underwriter of the film. Despite the fact that there is little in it to give the viewer any perspective as to size of the glittering masterpieces, and despite the questionable use of the PBS service to air what is to some extent a promotion of the Forbes name, "Lost to the Revolution" is worth watching mainly for its close-ups of the unique art form, the decorated egg.
"Life With St. Helens" (PBS, Tuesday, 10-10:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) tells a seldom-told tale about the people who live on the edge of the volcano. Produced by Mark Heussy for KSPS, Spokane, it concerns itself with how homeowners react to a new neighbor -- when it is an erupting volcano. Despite its sensational St. Helens footage, this is a fine, thoughtful documentary about human beings.
"Ansel Adams: Photographer" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is about America as much as it is about this classic photographer of Americana. This rambling, meandering film, directed by John Huszar for KQED, San Francisco, follows Adams from his darkroom in Carmel to Yosemite, stopping en route for a bit of piano playing and a chat with Georgia O'Keeffe. It is fascinating to see in almost overwhelming full color what Adams photographed in black and white. If the film rambles on a bit, so does Ansel Adams himself. But both are worth studying.