‘The Barchester Chronicles’ (TV)


Please feel free to comment on my review.

The Period Drama with Mr. Slope

Many will remember this as Alan Rickman’s breakthrough role in film and television!

‘The Barchester Chronicles’ is a seven-part TV drama serial, based on two books in ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’ series by Anthony Trollope. The serial was shown in 1982 and features a stupendous cast of stars, who deliver this classic period drama of 19th century church and politics to life onto TV.

This happens to be one of my Dad’s favourite TV period drama serials made by the BBC. Being brought up in a Christian family, it’s easy to see why this is one of my Dad’s favourites. There is a strong Christian message featured throughout this TV serial as well as in the atmosphere and setting.

The DVD box set contains 2 DVDs with the seven hour-long episodes of ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ in them. Disc 1 has ‘Parts One to Four’ whilst Disc 2 has ‘Parts Five to Seven’. The two books by Anthony Trollope are ‘The Warden’ and ‘Barchester Towers’ and were adapted by Alan Plater for TV.

Now to be clear here, I’ve never read any of Anthony Trollope’s books. I’m sure ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ is a faithful adaptation of the first two books that he wrote, but this is out of a series of six books by Anthony Trollope. So why didn’t they adapt all the six ‘Barchester Chronicles’ books for TV?

As I’ll explain in this review, there is a sense of compressing a lot of material and characters from two books into a seven-part serial. Surely it would make sense to have six seasons made out of the TV adaptations of the ‘Barchester’ books rather than cramming two books into one seven-part serial.

The serial was produced by Jonathan Powell and directed by David Giles. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Jonathan Powell produced many period dramas for BBC TV in the 70s and 80s, including ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which I’ve seen.

Jonathan Powell is also remembered for something else. He, with Michael Grade, attempted to cancel ‘Doctor Who’ in the 1980s. Many ‘Doctor Who’ fans hate him for it, but he did produce some splendid period dramas for the BBC in the 70s and 80s. ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ is a fine example.

To understand the structure of ‘The Barchester Chronicles’, you need to know when the two novels take place in the seven-part serial. ‘The Warden’ takes up most of the first two episodes whilst ‘Barchester Towers’ takes up the last five. This is an unusual way to adapt two books into one serial.

The story centres on Donald Pleasence as Septimus Harding. He is seen at first as the warden of Hiram’s Hospital and the precentor (who facilities worship and music) at Barchester Cathedral. In the story, Mr. Harding becomes the target of a news crusade to rid the Church of England of corruption.

The crusade is heralded by John Bold, a zealous church reformer who is also in love with Harding’s daughter Eleanor. For the first two episodes, a newspaper called ‘The Jupiter’ accuses Harding for earning too much income in his role as warden of Hiram’s Hospital. This is something which hits Harding very badly.

Gradually during the first two episodes, Harding decides to resign from his office as warden of the hospital in order to dispel any notions made by the newspapers. This is something that many object to. Despite John Bold dropping his crusade in the process, Harding remains adamant in his decision.

Donald Pleasance delivers a great performance as Septimus Harding in the story. Harding is a kind-hearted, meek soul who believes in the good of everybody and is strongly fierce in his Christian beliefs. It’s very easy to admire Harding for his selfless acts in the story and his love for his daughter.

I must mention that this was the first time I saw Donald Pleasance in anything related to TV and film, since I watched ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ at an early age with my parents. Donald Pleasance has also starred in the James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice’ as well as in the ‘Halloween’ movie series.

This serial also stars Nigel Hawthorne as Dr. Grantly. I’ve seen Nigel Hawthorne in many TV and film productions, but most especially I remember him as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the two BBC TV political sitcoms, ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’. Hawthorne is very good in this drama serial.

Dr. Grantly is the Archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral as well as the son-in-law of Mr. Harding. Grantly is a fiery spirit with strong political beliefs concerning the church. He is less forgiving than Mr. Harding and exclaims “Good heavens!” a lot when things are bad. But he is a good soul at heart.

There’s also Cyril Luckham as Bishop Grantly, Dr. Grantly’s father. For me, Cyril Luckham played the White Guardian in ‘Doctor Who’ and was in ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Them’. It was a delight to see him in this as he seems very soft-hearted like Mr. Harding compared to his son, Archdeacon Grantly.

There’s Janet Maw as Eleanor, Mr. Harding’s daughter. Janet Maw has also been in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, produced by Jonathan Powell. Eleanor loves her father very much. She gets angry with John Bold and his crusade against her father and the church, before she says ‘yes’ to marry him in the end.

David Gwillim stars as John Bold, who crusades against Barchester Cathedral and its supposed ‘corruption’. It was interesting to see how John Bold had these set ambitions to expose the church’s ‘bad colours’ before he realises his mistakes; abandons his crusade and asks Eleanor to marry him.

There’s also Angela Pleasence as Mrs Susan Grantly, Mr. Harding’s elder daughter and the Archdeacon’s wife. Angela Pleasance happens to be Donald Pleasance’s daughter in real-life. Susan Grantly is ‘the better half’ to Nigel Hawthorne’s character, as she’s sweet, gentle and understanding.

The cast also features George Costigan as Tom Towers, the editor of ‘The Jupiter’ newspaper who writes deplorable words against Mr. Harding. There’s also John Ringham, who I’ve seen in ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Dad’s Army’, as Finney, a lawyer who John Bold talks to about his concerns and crusade.

There’s also Barbara Flynn as Mary Bold, John Bold’s sister. I’ve seen Barbara Flynn in many period TV dramas including ‘Wives and Daughters’, ‘Cranford’ and the war-time series ‘A Family at War’. Mary persuades John to stop his crusade and she becomes close friends to Eleanor when she marries her brother.

‘The Barchester Chronicles’ was filmed in and around Peterborough Cathedral, using locations like the Deanery and Laurel Court. Seeing the cathedral setting on location was reassuring, as it adds a sense of majesty and holiness to the place as well as it should be with God and a Christian atmosphere.

And that was ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ in the first two episodes. Goodness me, they crammed a lot in those two episodes with characters and setting. But I think they did a really good job…oh wait minute. It’s not over yet! That was just the first third, as more is to be told in the next five episodes.

I did get confused especially as ‘Part Two’ ended with Mr. Harding, Eleanor and John Bold walking off together. But I suppose it will allow us more time to get to know the characters and see the romance of Eleanor and John Bold blossom together especially in how their marriages continues later on in…

No! Oh wait! By ‘Part Three’, John Bold is dead; Eleanor has a baby; Cyril Luckham’s character dies and its years later. Oh come on! They can’t just skip a gap like that in a number of years between the second and third episode. This is something I do have to complain about from watching the TV serial.

I thought this was supposed to be a drama of emotion and feeling as well as church politics. Yet how can that be when they’re cramming in so many characters, especially when compressing two novels of ‘Barchester’ into one serial? Why can’t they just focus on one set of characters in one certain tale?

By the time we get to ‘Part Three’, we’re introduced to some more characters and most of the last two thirds of the serial are dedicated to those characters. Alan Rickman’s character features mostly in those two thirds of the drama serial. And he isn’t the main hero at all in the story. He’s the villain!

That’s right. Alan Rickman stars as Obadiah Slope, the Bishop’s new chaplain at Barchester. Alan Rickman is well-known for many TV and film credits, including his role in the ‘Harry Potter’ movies as Snape. He has done many TV roles beforehand. This is what made his breakthrough into film and TV.

Mr. Slope is a very odious character who has high ambitions in the church as well as in who he marries. Alan Rickman plays him so well with that edge of seriousness. He is instantly disliked by Dr. Grantly, Mr. Harding and others, especially in his first sermon when he talks about music and words.

In the story, Slope attempts to propose marriage to widow Eleanor Bold née Harding, since it turns out she’s a wealthy lady from her marriage to John Bold. Slope also has influence over Dr. Proudie, the new Bishop at Barchester, who tries to persuade matters of Hiram’s Hospital and of the Deanery.

As well as Alan Rickman’s character Mr. Slope, he is joined by Clive Swift as Dr. Proudie, the new Bishop and his wife, Geraldine McEwan as Mrs. Proudie. The Proudies can be seen as church versions of Hyacinth and Richard from ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, except Mrs. Proudie is far worse.

Speaking of which, Clive Swift played Richard in the BBC TV sitcom series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, which I remember him for, before seeing him as Bishop Proudie in this. It was a joy to see Clive Swift, having seen him in ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ as well as some ‘Doctor Who’ stories.

Bishop Proudie is a weak-willed soul who stammers and hesitates a lot during his term in office at Barchester. This is especially when he has meetings with Mr. Slope and when his wife, Mrs. Proudie, is in his presence. He seems to be a kind-hearted man, but he doesn’t stand up for himself at times.

Geraldine McEwan is great as Mrs. Proudie in ‘The Barchester Chronicles’. She would later star as Miss Marple in the ITV series of ‘Agatha Christie’s Marple’ for its first three seasons. I’ve seen Geraldine in a number of TV/film roles now and her performance as Mrs. Proudie is so spellbinding.

Mrs. Proudie seems to have a lot to say and speaks for her husband at times, especially when he’s so weak-willed and hesitant. She seems to be Mr. Slope’s ally at first, but she soon comes to dislike him especially when Slope becomes so ambitious for his own agenda and has a fancy for Signora Neroni.

I liked some of the comedic moments from Mrs. Proudie in this serial, especially when she’s with her husband and she puts too much sugar in his cup of tea before forgetting to pour some for him when talking about Slope as a possible dean. She also forbids Mrs. Quiverful to cry, which is actually funny.

The serial also stars Susan Hampshire as Signora Madeline Neroni. For me, Susan Hampshire would later play Molly MacDonald in the BBC TV drama series set in Scotland called ‘Monarch of the Glen’. It was a delight to see Susan Hampshire in this period drama serial and she looks rather young as well.

Signora Neroni is a beautiful young lady who is lame and crippled, needing to be carried around on a sofa. She seems to be a flirt, especially when Mr. Slope comes to visit her at times in the house she lives in. But she also invites and persuades Eleanor to fall in love with Mr. Arabin and eventually marry him.

‘The Barchester Chronicles’ cast also includes Susan Edmonstone as Charlotte Stanhope and Peter Blythe as Bertie Stanhope whom Signora Neroni resides with. There’s also Jonathan Adams as Mr. Quiverful, who becomes warden of Hiram’s Hospital, and Maggie Jones as his wife, Letitia Quiverful.

There’s Derek New as Francis Arabin, who becomes Eleanor’s second love interest in the story. There’s also Trevor Baxter (who I recognise as Professor Litefoot in ‘Doctor Who’) as Dr. Gwynne. I also recognised Denis Carey (from ‘Doctor Who’) as Job Skulpit in the first two episodes of the story.

There’s also Richard Leech (who I recognised from the ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Sun Makers’) as Wilfred Thorne and Ursula Howells as Miss Thorne, his brother. There’s also Michael Aldridge (who also starred in the BBC version of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’) as Sir Abraham Haphazard in ‘Part Two’ and Phyllida Law (who also appeared in ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’) as Mrs. Stanhope in ‘Part Three’.

The DVD special features are as follows. On Disc 2, there’s ‘Middle England’s Marvel’, a commemorative profile of Peterborough Cathedral as it celebrated its 750th anniversary in 1989. This can be played in the ‘Play All’ option and be found in the ‘Episode Selection’ of the DVD. This has no relation in terms of the making of ‘The Barchester Chronicles’, apart from it as a film location.

‘The Barchester Chronicles’ is a gentle drama serial that features a superb stunning cast of talented and fine actors. It does seem rather compressed with two novels for the story to base itself on, as the first two episodes focus on the first novel whilst the last five episodes focus on the second novel.

But aside from that, the storytelling keeps hold as the cast of characters are wonderful. It’s also a TV production that many will remember Alan Rickman for, before he went on to star in many more films and TV productions. It’s probably what ‘The Barchester Chronicles’ is remembered for anyway.

‘The Barchester Chronicles’ rating – 8/10

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