The folks at the BBC have the gift of bringing classics to life in a way that's both utterly faithful to the original novel, and completely entertaining. The Barchester Chronicles is a perfect example: this seven-part miniseries whisks viewers away into the 19th-century world of Antony Trollope's celebrated novels, where we become absorbed by the political machinations and romantic intrigues in the town and cathedral of Barchester.
The Barchester Chronicles is an adaptation of two of Trollope's books, The Warden and Barchester Towers. The first two episodes, which cover events from The Warden, are fairly self-contained, apart from introducing us to some of the main characters and establishing some background for the rest of the miniseries. They're also the weakest part of an otherwise extremely compelling series, as it gets off to a somewhat slow start in terms of pacing and story. That's not to say that these first two episodes are badly done; in fact, they're entertaining; they're simply slower-paced and not quite as engaging as the rest of the series. With the third episode we move into the events from Barchester Towers: new (and fascinating) characters are introduced and the story dramatically expands and becomes more compelling. It's here that you'll really get hooked.
The main plot threads of The Barchester Chronicles revolve around Church and local politics. The first area of contention is the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital, a Church charity home under the supervision of Mr. Harding (Donald Pleasence). The dilemma that drives the first two episodes of The Barchester Chronicles is the fact that while Mr. Harding is undeniably a good, gentle, and universally admired man, he is being paid a princely salary to do essentially nothing... and he may very well have gotten this sinecure because his son-in-law is the Archdeacon (Nigel Hawthorne). This situation is enough to fire up the reforming sentiments of Dr. Bold (David Gwilim), who starts a public crusade against the unfair policies of the Church in this matter, even though it will probably alienate him from Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor (Janet Maw), whom he loves.
As the series moves on, these events take on a new dimension with the arrival of a new bishop (Clive Swift), a distressingly weak man who is accompanied by his domineering wife Mrs. Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and ambitious chaplain Mr. Slope (Alan Rickman, in his first major role). The wardenship swiftly becomes a bone of contention once more, while at the same time, a conflict on the social scene is brewing, as Mr. Slope strives to insinuate himself into everyone's good graces (especially Eleanor's), much to the consternation of the Archdeacon and his associates.
It's a story of conflicting agendas and continual plotting, with the two opposing sides each determined to have their way (whether the topic is politics, love, or societal graces); what makes it really interesting, though, is that it's not always clear who's in the right and who's in the wrong. We immediately like and respect Mr. Harding, so we want him to win out... but the reformers who oppose him have some very good points. Mrs. Proudie is utterly obnoxious and we want to see her fail in all her little plans... except that, objectively considered, her plans may be quite reasonable. And then there's Mr. Slope. Is he really a despicable fellow? Ambitious, to be sure, but worse than the Archdeacon, who is equally conniving (in different ways)? Likewise, Eleanor's friends and family have the best intentions for her, but their interference in her life is insufferable. There's a subtle running critique built into the story, making us consider how we judge people's actions and motives differently based on our personal feelings toward them (and by how much we stand to gain from them). Without giving anything away, it's also worth noting that might even be some sly, hidden criticism of the characters (and their society) in the way the story threads wrap up in the ending.
The Barchester Chronicles is well paced, except for a somewhat slow start, with each individual episode advancing one or more threads of the overall story in an interesting manner and leading on nicely to the next one. The pacing is unhurried, to be sure, but it never drags, thanks in no small part to the extremely solid acting performances from all concerned. That's really the make-or-break point of a series like this, and The Barchester Chronicles succeeds completely. All the characters, whether major or minor, are extremely well acted and completely believable. That's the case even with the characters who are at least partly comedic; their characterizations never slide over into parody.
It's also notable that The Barchester Chronicles manages its large cast of characters quite well, so that the story is never confusing and you never lose track of who's who. Partly this is due to the characters being introduced gradually, which is always a good idea in productions like this. The scenes are also handled well so that even if you don't remember the name of a tertiary character, the context tells you all you need to know. If there's one complaint I'd make about the handling of the characters here, it's that Mr. Arabin is introduced a bit too late and not given as much screen time as his character seems to need. With a story that juggles so many characters, and adapts such a massive novel, though, that's little enough to complain about.
Even among so many excellent performances, it's still possible to point out especially noteworthy ones. Donald Pleasance has the difficult task of portraying a meek, mild, humble person while still making him into someone who's interesting to watch. That's harder than it might seem, but he pulls it off, creating a character who, although fundamentally mild-mannered, still has fire in him when pressed hard enough. Geraldine McEwan is another brilliant addition to the cast, as she dominates any scene she's in, just as her character dominates poor Bishop Proudie.
And of course Alan Rickman absolutely shines as Mr. Slope; after seeing him in the role, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part, and it's impossible to imagine The Barchester Chronicles without him. Not only does he excel at portraying Slope exuding charm and feeling as self-satisfied as the cat who ate the canary, but he also gives us an increasingly stymied and ruffled Slope when things start to go against him. When it comes to Mr. Slope, you may love him or hate him (or both at the same time), but thanks to Rickman's performance, you will certainly enjoy every minute that he's on the screen.
The Barchester Chronicles is a two-DVD set, with the first four 55-minute episodes on the first disc, and the last three on the second disc. I can't comment on the packaging, since unfortunately I only had check discs to review.
Considering that it's a television production from 1982, The Barchester Chronicles looks respectable. The somewhat flat "television look" of the production is noticeable at first, but it's easy enough to get used to, and in any case, it's simply an effect of how it was filmed. Outside shots tend to be somewhat grainy while indoor shots are much clearer (viewers who are familiar with older British television will recognize this as typical), and middle- to long-distance shots tend to be soft. There are also many instances of colored haloing effects, though fortunately these are not extensive.
On the bright side, though, close-up shots look very nice, with crisp details. Since this is a program at the scale of the drawing-room, not the epic, the result is that most of the time the image looks perfectly fine. Colors look natural and warm, and the print is in good condition, with no flaws or dirt appearing in either indoor or outdoor scenes. The program appears in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is satisfactory, if not perfect. The overall volume tends to be a bit low, so it's necessary to turn up the volume a bit, but that's not a problem since the sound is evenly balanced at that point. A slight hiss is audible in the background, but it's not distracting, and doesn't interfere with the rest of the track. Dialogue, which is the essential element for a production like this, is always clear and easy to understand.
An interesting 30-minute featurette is included here, called "Middle England's Marvel": it is a short documentary on the history of Peterborough Cathedral, which was used for the on-location shooting of The Barchester Chronicles. Detailed text biographies and filmographies of the cast are also included.
The Barchester Chronicles is a delightful adaptation of two excellent 19th-century novels, managing to be both completely faithful to the originals and extremely entertaining at the same time. The seven-part miniseries starts off slowly, but it will grow on you: not only does it have a very entertaining story and excellent production values as a period piece, it's graced with an outstanding cast who turn in amazing acting performances, one and all. That excellence in acting from Alan Rickman, Donald Pleasence, Geraldine McEwan, and others is really what brings The Barchester Chronicles to life, and it's what makes it easy to give this DVD set a "highly recommended" rating.