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British television drama at its best
on 7 July 2014
I love this television series. Based on Olivia Manning's trilogy of novels set in Romania, Athens, and Egypt just before and during the Second World War, with a cast of complex and unusual characters, the TV series cast Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as the leads, Guy and Harriet Pringle, their first outing together as an acting couple, playing a married couple. Their management of their roles is excellent. Harriet Pringle is charming, attractive, and intelligent, and Emma Thompson's refreshing exuberance brings Harriet to life subtly and effectively (she won a BAFTA for her performance). She almost out-acts Branagh who, as the intense and committed young English lecturer, obsessed with literature and absorbed in his own world, is convincing. The pair are lovely to watch as they become entangled in the politics of the day, sheltering a Jewish student, leaving for Athens after the German invasion of Romania, then Cairo after their friend, the self-centred and parasitical Russian emigré, Prince Yakimov, is shot, where Guy eventually gets a job in Alexandria and is dogged by the machinations of Lord Pinkrose and the dubious Dubedat and Harriet struggles with her problems with Guy and decisions about her future.
Surrounded by complex and not necessarily attractive characters, from the unreliable Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) to irritating and pompous academic Lord Pinkrose (Alan Bennett), eccentric Castlebar (Robert Stephens) and luscious Bella (Caroline Langrishe), to the unsavoury Dubedat (Mark Drewry) or suave, urbane diplomat Dobson (Charles Kay), the series traces Harriet's and Guy's lives through the vicissitudes of war and instability which inevitably affect their relationship and destabilise it to the extent of Harriet considering an affair and in Cairo, feeling neglected by Guy - who buries himself in his work as an escape from the turmoil and disaster around him, planniing a theatrical production of 'Troilus and Cressida' and casting his friends in the parts - Harriet finds amusement with other friends, Simon (Rupert Graves), Aiden (Greg Hicks), visiting Luxor with Angela (Ciaran Madden), contracting dystentery and then deciding to go back to England, she travels to Damascus with Mortimer (Claire Oberman) and is presumed dead after the ship she was supposed to have been on is torpedoed. Guy is distraught, realising how much he loves Harriet. Their reunion at the end of the series is appropriate, a note of hope reflecting the hope of victory in the war.
The wonderful performances, the exotic settings, the Bohemian literary world, unconventional characters, unexpected friendships, the effect of war, the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in political turmoil, all make for a marvellous television work and one that is worth returning to every few years to wallow in a particularly halcyon period of television drama and British acting.