``Sometimes wonderfully crafted second-rate novels make first-rate television,'' asserts James Cellan Jones, director of ``Fortunes of War,'' the current seven-part ``Masterpiece Theatre'' presentation, based on Olivia Manning's ``Balkan Trilogy'' and ``Levant Trilogy.'' Mr. Cellan Jones (``It's a Welsh name, pronounced as if spelled Kethlan,'' he explains) has directed many television dramas based on literary works - ``The Forsyte Saga,'' ``The Portrait of a Lady,'' and ``The Golden Bowl,'' among others. He also directed the original PBS series ``The Adams Chronicles.'' Although he was a top staff member at the BBC in the 1970s, for many years this tweedy, professorial veteran of quality-TV wars has been a free-lance director/producer.
``BBC will probably hate me for saying this, but Olivia Manning's novels are at the absolute top of the second class,'' he said in a luncheon interview, referring to the series that began Jan. 17 - to unanimous critical acclaim - and continues through Feb. 28.
But then he relents a bit. ``Actually the novels have a lot of fine qualities, which you don't discover on first reading. Penguin has now reprinted them, and they are well on their way to becoming a rarefied cult, the darling of London intellectuals.'' The series was in the planning stage for many years, and Cellan Jones regrets that Olivia Manning, who, he says, passionately wanted to see the novels on TV, died before they could be aired.
The series, produced with some additional funding by WGBH of Boston, cost about $12 million, which makes it one of the most expensive BBC miniseries ever. ``But I made absolutely sure,'' Cellan Jones said, ``that it all went on the screen and not into wasteful things.''
``Fortunes of War,'' which takes place in 1940-42 in Romania, Greece, Egypt, and Syria, was actually shot in Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Greece. ``We were not allowed to shoot in Romania,'' he says. ``It is a very sad country, rich in soil and oil but in a very bad way. When I visited there on a tourist visa, I went to a market and saw a queue a quarter of a mile long waiting to buy a few sad-looking vegetables. All the important landmarks, fine old buildings, were being destroyed; so it would have been difficult to find the right locations there anyway.'' They ended up shooting the Romanian scenes in Yugoslavia.
When the production team went to see Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercuri to get permission to film Parthenon scenes, she wanted mainly to talk about the Elgin Marbles, which the Greek government is demanding that the British return to Greece. ``We convinced her we had no authority to return them,'' he says with a laugh, ``and got permission to shoot at the Parthenon and the Agora.''
Cellan Jones feels the miniseries can be viewed on several levels. ``First, it is the story of a difficult marriage between a sharp, intelligent woman born out of her time and a husband who is an irritating pain. But it is also about how the Brits behave abroad.
``They're a funny lot, especially those in the British Council ..., of enormous integrity but not fighters. They thought that the study of English literature was the most important thing in the world. There's a certain magnificence in these shabby people desperately photocopying obscure poets and lending them to people who want to read them. These Brits are people who don't give up their culture easily, despite the difficulties of the moment.
``What we tried to say in the miniseries is that Harriet and Guy would drift on through life more or less the way they are, although a book was beginning to form in Harriet's [Olivia's] mind. Also, the miniseries examines the relationship between men and women in the recent past. Harriet is a modern woman tied to a guy from the past.''
To make room for the commentary by Alistair Cooke in the American version, it was necessary to do some cutting of the episodes, Cellan Jones notes. ``I think Alistair Cooke is a cultivated and charming man,'' he observed politely, ``but why do some people in charge believe that the American people are so stupid that they have to have it all explained to them before they see it?''
Cellan Jones believes that, after a period in which literate miniseries have been in decline, except for ``Brideshead Revisited'' and ``The Jewel in the Crown,'' we are in for a revival of the form, even though he believes the BBC is ``under tremendous government pressure'' to make decisions warily. There is one major project that he hopes will come to fruition soon: a TV miniseries based on Lawrence Durrell's ``Alexandria Quartet.'' ``I do so want to do that. But the trouble is: Someone else owns the rights, and we are still trying to arrange to acquire them.''
Another future project is a miniseries based on Malcolm Bradbury's ``Rates of Exchange.'' It's about a teacher who goes to an Iron Curtain country called Slaka, which was invented by the author. Being a linguist, he has invented a language for Slaka and has even published a guide to the country, complete with its customs and easy phrases. It's all very literary, but it could be enormously entertaining.''
Cellan Jones believes that ``Fortunes of War'' is more than just entertainment. ``My great hope is that this miniseries will be reminding people of the evils of the past but also steer them towards thinking, `How did all of these important things affect me as a rather unimportant individual?' Because, after all, `Fortunes of War' is about ordinary people in exotic places who manage to survive extraordinary circumstances. Each of us can identify with some of that.''
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.