Thursday, May 6, 2010

(No.91) Escaping dross & drek with The Pallisers

These days it is a minority of households lacking access through cable service or satellite dish to at least 50 television channels, most of which are clogged up with drek like an old drain. Even the cable news channels in both Canada and the U.S. are hopelessly repetitive and frequently superficial, fractured into short segments by endless commercials selling ginzu knifes by mail. It tries the patience of many of even the most ardent current affairs junkies.

To be sure there are oases in the increasingly arid landscapes of broadcast news and entertainment but they are fewer in part because proliferating cable channels are aimed at narrower interests and smaller potential audiences..

Consider also the sad example of the A & E Network cable channel in the U.S. and widely available in Canada. A & E formerly presented itself as the Arts & Entertainment channel and its programming dollars went towards many wonderful productions, often from the U.K. Just one example: the superb 1995 BBC 5 hour miniseries of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", a version that is likely to remain the gold standard for this often-dramatized novel.

Today A & E has moved 180 degrees to become the home of pedestrian content aimed at a lowest common denominator audience. It now broadcasts the sort of rubbish that relies on endless episodes of 'reality shows' like "Dog the Bounty Hunter". Or how about The Learning Channel (or TLC as it is now called) whose idea of 'educational' content has become cop videos presented under program titles such as "Police Women of Maricopa County"?

While fine new drama in significant quantity is thinner on the broadcast ground than ever, the other side of today's "less and less from more and more channels" is the availability on DVD of so many fine movies as well television programs made over many years for and by broadcasters in Canada, Britain and the U.S. The BBC is a particularly deep well of such material.

I have referred previously in this column to a particular example of such a classic production -- Dennis Potter's superlative "The Singing Detective" (see column No. 28 on Another English production Pat and I have recently revisited is the BBC's series "The Pallisers" presented in 26 episodes in the mid-1970s.

This series was adapted for televison by Simon Raven from the six so-called political novels of England's prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). The publication of these particular Trollope novels stretched from 1845 to 1880.

The world of three generations of the Palliser family has as its focus the political and private lives of mid-to-late Victorian aristocracy. The stories are inseparable from British politics of the period, especially the Liberal Party both in and out of office. The central characters of the novels are members of what Trollope called "the upper ten hundred of this our English world".

As one who spent many rewarding hours (as well as quite a few frustrating ones) doing research for two graduate degree theses involving the history of Victorian Britain I find notes struck by the television series "The Pallisers" resonate wonderfully as it follows the family through more than a quarter century.

The cast is immense (90 roles excluding extras), the costumes and settings both authentic and impressive, the dialogue and the acting style well suited to the period represented. The actors in the series seem almost to constitute a 'who's who' of a generation of English character actors.

My particular favourites among a number of noteworthy performances in "The Pallisers" include Roland Culver as the elderly Duke of Omnium and Roger Livesey's turn as the Duke of St.Bungay, in the latter case mainly because it was one of the last roles Livesey did before his death in 1976. Two small gems among the many performances were delivered by Donald Pickering (who died last year) as Dolly Longstaffe and the heavily bearded Moray Watson as Barrington Erle.

"The Pallisers" was broadcast on the BBC in 1974 and then in the U.S. on HBO and subsequently on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. The complete series is now available on DVD. I suspect it is difficult to find as a rental if one's only source is a local Blockbuster outlet.

Acorn Media is a firm that has made not just a speciality but a focus of its DVD business the identifying, gathering and distributing of DVDs of a very long list of British television programs drawn from productions made over many years. Their amazingly extensive catalog of British programs for sale on DVD can be accessed at and can be purchased directly from them. Alternatively some of these programs, including "The Pallisers" and numerous other British period dramas, can be ordered online from and from www.

It is worth comparing the prices offered for such DVDs by these three firms. Prices will vary with the title and by whether or not the particular title is a sale or discount item. For the complete set of the DVDs of "The Pallisers" the prices when I checked just recently were :

Chapters.Indigo -- $112 (Can)
Amazon -- $117 (Can)
Acorn -- $125 (US)

All of this is by way of underlining the fact that countless hours of superior viewing are available as an alternative to the dross and dregs which threaten to overwhelm, a tide which internet ephemera causes to rise continuously.

Alastair Rickard