`Strangers and Brothers' portrays private sorrow, public posture

For many readers C. P. Snow's novels are an acquired taste which turns out to be habit-forming. Snow, a British scientist-civil servant wrote books as a spare-time hobby -- 11 novels make up the sequence upon which the seven-part Masterpiece Theatre series, Strangers and Brothers (PBS, seven Sundays starting May 5, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) is based. Warning: The TV series can be as compelling as the novels themselves.

The fictional hero of the series is Lewis Eliot, a man whose career parallels Snow's in many respects, except for the recreational novel writing. The original novels take Lewis from around 1927 through the '60s, although not in chronological order. But this series reshuffles the events into chronological order, from 1927 through 1941. Lewis moves from Cambridge to London, where he becomes a barrister, then back to a combination of academia and civil service, finally ending up in a top-level governmental position during World War II, juggling career, marriage, friendships.

Lewis marries a woman who doesn't love him and anguishes his way through a long, unsatisfying marriage, finally coming to the realization that it is the lone, remote stranger within himself that is preventing him from enjoying any complete relationship. The disturbed, nonloving woman he chose suits him well, he discovers too late, since he is incapable of giving much more himself, although he fools himself and others into believing otherwise. As one character describes him: ``Lewis gets all of the anguish and none of the fun'' out of life.

Subtly directed by Ronald Wilson and Jeremy Summers, subtly acted by an impeccable cast including Shaughan Seymour, Sheila Ruskin, and Nigel Havers, from an even more subtle adaptation by Julian Bond, this BBC/WGBH series is so subtle that viewers may find it slipping away from them in its sometimes maddening vagueness. More than most Masterpiece Theatre series, it needs the guiding hand -- and words -- of Alistaire Cook to clarify some of the gaps in story line necessitated by the truncation from 11 novels to seven hours.

Some characters pop up once or twice, never to appear again; others who turn out to be main characters are so vaguely introduced that it is not until much later in the story that you realize they are permanent fixtures. But as the story records the superficiality and restraint of some of its characters, it also illuminates the very strength which allows them -- and their nation -- to carry on, no matter the adversity. Americans with stereotypical attitudes toward Britain may find it very ``British,'' because in many instances it tends to strengthen their English stereotypes.

``Strangers and Brothers'' starts a bit slowly, and it is not until it is several hours along that viewers may find themselves emotionally involved. But meantime there is a superb picture of life in the pre-war British class-ridden society. And Episode 5, which seems to have little to do with the rest of the story, is a spellbinding study in academic politics as Cambridge fellows maneuver to replace the dying master of Lewis's college. It's a perplexing portrait of Machiavelli on campus.

Interwined amidst that and the final episode, which concentrates on the little-known story of Britain's attempts to produce an atomic bomb before America succeeds in producing one, is a sad and humbling tale of incomplete human beings trying to make their lives whole. Humanism battles technology throughout the struggle as people incapable of loving themselves find it impossible to love other people. The effect of their private agony reveals itself in their public posture.

Whether or not you are taken completely with the uninvolvement of ``Strangers and Brothers'' characters, you will find superbly involving dialogue scattered throughout the script. ``You're wonderful with people who don't matter, but you break the heart of anyone who loves you,'' accuses one of Lewis's later loves. She is protesting that he never really gives much of himself to anybody: ``You only issue bulletins about yourself,'' she says.

``Strangers and Brothers'' is a fascinatingly complex series overflowing with multileveled portraits of people who are strangers and brothers to themselves as well as to each other. If you choose to watch the series, they will undoubtedly become brothers, not strangers, to you, too.

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