Imagination defeats darkness in 'Arabian Nights'

Scheherazade married a mad sultan who intended to have her executed before dawn. She kept herself alive by telling him a story every night, each linked to the one before, for a thousand and one nights. When she finally finished, the sultan had recovered his wits, and loved his wife happily ever after.

Arabian Nights, an exquisite miniseries about this greatest of all storytellers, airs Sunday (ABC, 8-10 p.m., and Monday, 9-11 p.m.). It has been politically corrected a tad for contemporary American audiences, but retains all the charm, vitality, and poetry of the original.

It is the story of a heroic woman who uses her wit and imagination to win out against selfishness and darkness.

Scheherazade saves not only herself with her tales, but the other women the sultan might have married and executed. Then, too, her stories save the sultan, and his throne, from a usurper.

"One of the things that attracted me to the subject," says English playwright Peter Barnes, who wrote the screenplay, "is that there is a heroine who is more sensible than anyone else in the story. It is a very ancient text - many of the stories in it were oral texts that came down through time.... I wanted to convey that ancient form.... I had to try to convey that storytelling [can be] redemptive, helpful, even vital to human beings. It is very precious...."

He points out that in Scheherazade's case, storytelling is a matter of life and death. But she learns from a master storyteller (Alan Bates twinkles sedately in the role) that the audience must be enthralled in the first few moments of the narrative.

So Barnes's own account grabs the viewer in the first few moments of the film as well. The stories we listen to can change us, he says (a good argument against junk TV), and the sultan is changed.

And what changes one through a narrative is its moral. At one point, Scheherazade tells the sultan that every story has a moral. It is one of the most appealing aspects of a story, she says, because it reminds us how best to live.

Barnes made a point of indicating how the stories are useful in real life. The sultan, betrayed by his first wife and his brother, listens to Scheherazade's tales of magic and learns from them wisdom, strategy, and courage. He regains his sense of humor. Most important, the sultan learns to appreciate the goodness, intelligence, and love of his new wife and in so doing recovers from sorrow, remorse, and fear.

An international cast gives the interlocking yarns an exotic grandeur that also helps reveal the inherent universality of these stories.

Israeli actress Mili Avital is luminous as Scheherazade. She brings a quiet intensity to her storytelling that enraptures the viewer as easily as the sultan (played with shadowy finesse by Dougray Scott).

Asked what the role meant to her, Ms. Avital said, "It was a movie with an important spiritual message. We have to believe in goodness around us in the world and in people....

"It is such a well-rounded role. Scheherazade's wisdom, sense, her very human self-doubt, and her love - it is psychologically and culturally rich. It is a simple story, really, and timeless about how art can save lives. And it transcends the political aspect of the male-female relationship. It has comedy, adventure, tragedy, and mystery, and it explores how wonderful the world is."

She's right.

TV doesn't often take the opportunity to do anything so poetic or lush. And it is a shame that the public will have to see it with commercial interruptions, which break up the organic flow of the storytelling.

There really isn't that much on TV that suffers from commercial interruptions, but in this case ABC should have considered running ads at the beginning and end of each of the two-hour segments.

Without the commercials, what the viewer takes away is a feeling of flowing silks, a recollection of the sanity of love, a quiet, beautiful voice whispering one grand tale, and then another.

If you're not a fan of genies and magic carpet rides, Masterpiece Theatre presents a captivating tale from real life - based, of course, on a book: Coral Atkins's memoir, Seeing Red (PBS, Sunday, check local listings). Ms. Atkins was a popular TV actress in Britain during the 1970s, when she made a charitable visit to a home for disturbed children.

What she saw there so disgusted her, she decided on the spot to open a home for neglected and abused little ones. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist and a wealthy philanthropist, she created a revolutionary home where abused children were patiently loved back to health.

Talk about single motherhood! Atkins had an eight-year-old of her own, carried on her acting career in order to support her foster children and her staff, and worked through her own childhood trauma of abuse in order to help the children through theirs.

Common sense, personal experience, and a perceptive heart helped her read what each child needed from her. The inspired Sarah Lancashire as Atkins glues us to our Lazy-Boys for this one.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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