This adaptation of Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels seems to be best remembered now as the television serial that made the name of Alan Rickman. Certainly I suspect that many of the people who have picked up this DVD have done so because of the presence of its breakthrough star. Those who do will discover the charms of this serial stretch far beyond its breakthrough star who is just one member of an excellent cast.
You will not see his face anywhere on the packaging but Donald Pleasance plays the central role in the piece of Reverend Harding, a mild-mannered and fundamentally good man who gets caught up in a row about the administration of a Church-run hospital. He becomes a pawn in the machinations of those around him and begins to question his own moral position as well as that of those around him.
Pleasance's performance is a little theatrical but it is also heart-warming. The actor's gravitas comes over well and he manages not only to make his character thoroughly sympathetic but also to make us respect him for his strong moral character. Trollope's story is fairly scathing about the clergy, essentially portraying them as being primarily interested in their own ends - Reverend Harding is apart from them and is the voice of the 'good Christian man', a concept that is overdone a little at the end in a Tiny Tim moment of obnoxious sentimentality.
The remainder of the cast are excellent with Nigel Hawthorne being a particular delight as Archdeacon Grantly, a figure who is not unreminiscent of Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister. Pompous with an uncanny ability to persue his own ends, Grantly provides much of the early conflict and a strong character contrast with Reverend Harding.
The plot meanders and becomes a little slow in its middle parts before speeding up towards its predictable ending. That said, it does so with humour, warmth and moments of genuine drama.
Like much of Trollope's work this occassionally feels a little over-long but despite that it hangs together well, courtesy of strong scripting and performances. Certainly the shooting style is dated with scenes feeling long and talky but like many shows of this period it carries that off well.
Sadly I suspect The Barchester Chronicles will be forever remembered primarily for whose career it launched rather than its strengths as a piece of television drama. However, for those who do investigate it and who have the patience to enjoy 1980s period drama they are in for a treat and will find a story that balances humour, conflict and moral questioning effectively and entertainingly.