Quartermaine's Terms PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). Edward Fox, John Gielgud in Simon Gray's play. ``It's no good being all right in the staff room if you're no good in the classroom, is it?'' says the title character in this compassionate, comic, beautifully drawn drama.
His reference to the classroom could as well have been to life itself, which for him is a wistful, hapless quest for love and meaning - usually found beneath a flow of brittle British small talk.
That talk - heard in the staff room of a slightly seedy school in Cambridge, England, where English is taught to foreigners - is the decent veneer on a series of bitter and sometimes wretched faculty lives, which are outlined through the staff's chatty comings and goings during the '60s. The characters range from a constantly distraught would-be novelist with marital troubles to a spinster who cares for an invalid mother who turns out to hate her.
But a subversive comic tone keeps any sentimentality at bay without lessening sympathy for the lonely and hard-pressed characters. The staff can't get a new arrival's name straight. Comic-opera Japanese students tend to pop up at the fringes of the action (you never actually meet the students - the school is decidedly a symbol of a certain kind of society). A warm greeting is unlikely to get by without some absurd edge showing. A swivel blackboard may bump a serious teacher on the head.
Mr. Gray is a master at building this slightly claustrophobic staff room, a gentle, talky place where - in the Chekhovian manner - almost all the action takes place. It's the faculty's refuge from the world and from themselves, where the conversation seems to deflect rather than reflect life. Viewers learn of the staff's personal lives through reference, and it is the emergence of these troubled backgrounds - so naturally and tellingly - beneath the matrix of civilized, quintessentially British talk that makes this play so effective.
A large part of its success is a cast that maintains the two-hour-long give-and-take deftly and with delicate insight. The least assertive but most affecting figure is Quartermaine himself, a well-bred, terribly decent fellow, bumbling through life on the strength of good cheer and gracious bromides. In Edward Fox's hands he is a touching, sometimes hilarious image of a man living half the time in a haze, thwarted on every hand in his efforts to reach out to people - and to life - and missing many other chances to do so. Lively by instinct but dropping into sad reflection at times, he never acts pitiable, but is. Why should such an attractive and intelligent man be so lost, you wonder. It's a slight flaw in the production's generally credible canvas, but by the drama's end - when you see Quartermaine in a dinner jacket he found in a suitcase he hadn't opened for years - that question has come and gone.
John Gielgud as their supervisor is his usual masterful self, a courtly, slightly clownish old man whose fatherly prattling sets the tone and provides institutional continuity to the atmosphere. His ``good, good'' to the updated news of the spinster's mother is an ironic leitmotif typifying the brave face he and the others are putting on their lives.