That the British-made "The Jewel in the Crown" is decidedly unlike American television--richer, more complex, more demanding--is obvious to anyone who's seen it. Just for the record, though, Christopher Morahan concedes that it's not typical of British television, either.
Morahan produced the critically acclaimed miniseries and directed half of it for Granada Television, one of England's commercial TV production companies. He described the undertaking as a sort of muscle-flexing exercise to demonstrate Granada's capacity for excellence.
"It takes a kind of bravery and audacity to do these things," Morahan said of the effort to bring to the small screen the four novels by Paul Scott, known collectively as "The Raj Quartet," about the last five years of British rule in India.
Morahan, interviewed during a recent visit to Los Angeles (where one of his children lives), said that although the budget for the 15-hour production was small by American standards, about $7 million, it was double the normal costs for British TV. What that bought, besides four months on location in India, was an unhurried, 15-month shooting schedule with occasional breaks and ample rehearsal time.
"I did not want to shoot at breakneck speed," he explained. "I told them, 'If you try to make it faster, you will probably be able to make it cheaper--but it probably won't be as good.' "
That the profit-minded Granada accepted these terms is indicative of a tradition in British television that is missing in its American counterpart, Morahan believes. Because the nonprofit, non-commercial British Broadcasting Corp. came first in England, it established high standards for television against which the commercial broadcasters who followed have been measured. And every so often, he explained, they feel compelled to throw caution to the wind and show that they can be just as ambitious and high-minded as the BBC.
Whereas in the United States, commercial broadcasting came first, and with it a whole other set of values. "Clearly the American broadcasters are in such competition that it's frightfully difficult for them to take risks," Morahan observed. "There's too much money riding on it." Indeed, he added with a chuckle, "The (equivalent of the) annual budgets of small African nations hang on it."
Morahan came to "The Jewel in the Crown" in 1980, two years after Granada's chairman, Sir Denis Forman, had set about acquiring the rights and determining whether Scott's complicated, back-and-forth narrative could be "straightened out" for TV.
A veteran director who had headed up the BBC's plays department from 1972 to 1976 and then became an associate director of the National Theatre for four years, Morahan was interested in directing the miniseries.
But then the initial producer, Irene Shubik, left Granada, and Morahan was asked to take over for her. She already had hired Ken Taylor to write the screen adaptation.
Morahan said he agreed that the story needed to be told chronologically--rather than with multiple flashbacks from different characters' points of view, as Scott had done--but he worked with Taylor in developing recurring themes and images. He cited as an example the use of fire to symbolize "the birth of a nation through violence."
"Generally one goes for one sensation or experience, or a straight narrative that makes the audience wonder what's going to happen next. You're not asking them to think about it or consider it, or to put it in some kind of perspective," Morahan said. "Here one needed to find some kind of subtext, rather than just 'A meets B and moves on to C.' One wanted to find a greater richness--which was there for the taking (in the novels) if one wanted."
The result, he contended, is a viewing experience that "is much closer (than usual) to the practice of reading." So while some of the miniseries' die-hard fans ache for a week until the next episode arrives, he maintained that these intervals are valuable because "they allow time for reflection, for making connections."
As producer, Morahan also made the decision to hire a second director, Jim O'Brien; the pair alternated shooting the 14 episodes. "It just seemed rather grotesque and greedy for me to direct every foot," he explained.
But there was a more practical reason: By alternating, each director had time between episodes to catch his breath, to think about the material ahead and come to it fresh.
That the finished product (which ends its PBS run March 17) does not bear evidence of two hands at the helm is due to several factors, Morahan said. He credited the use of a single film editor, Eddie Mansell; a single lighting cameraman, Ray Goode, and for most of the time a single production designer, Vic Symonds, with providing uniformity to the two directors' work. He also said that he and O'Brien tried to use similar styles in their direction and later worked with one another in editing the episodes.
Although Morahan believes there is some educational value to the miniseries--at least for the British, in terms of reflecting on their still unfolding transition from empire to nation--he said he wasn't looking to deliver any particular message. He simply wanted to convey effectively Scott's fascinating story about an interesting time in history, letting viewers take away from it as much or as little as they chose.
"A good movie changes one's perception of the world by extending one's understanding," he said. "I hope people enjoy this--and perhaps learn a little more about the strangeness of human nature."