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'Paradise' Is Another Pbs British Masterpiece

October 17, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The very Brrrrrritish-inspired "Masterpiece Theatre" begins another season on PBS Sunday, which is as good a reason as any to note next month's 50th birthday of BBC television.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has contributed nearly two dozen productions to "Masterpiece Theatre" in the last 15 years, for the most part enriching American TV by heaps and leaps and building a large audience of small-screen Anglophiles.

It's been a sweet relationship--lots of money for the non-commercial BBC from U.S. sales, lots of TV goodies for us, the kind that PBS could not afford to commission from American producers on a regular basis.

These are tough times, though, for the Beeb, as the BBC is called, and its reputation may be slipping.

As always, funds are tight. And although its present public financing likely will prevail for now, there are increasingly loud calls for advertising to replace the $89-per-TV-set license fee that pays for the BBC's two TV channels and for BBC radio.

The BBC is also continually attacked for being too sprawling and unwieldy. In addition, Conservative Party members accuse it of being tilted to the left and leftists accuse it of being tilted to the right.

It may be tilted, but it is not yet toppling or unappreciated.

Imports and imitations of U.S. programs have given British TV an increasing Yank tint, and many Britons feel that only the good old Beeb stands in the way of a mass Americanization of their TV.

Not that the BBC always stands alone as Britain's finest.

Sunday's "Masterpiece Theatre" production of John Mortimer's entertaining "Paradise Postponed" is not from the BBC.

Airing at 8 p.m. on Channels 24 and 50 and at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, it's from London-based Thames Television, one of 16 independent production companies that make up Britain's commercial Independent Television system.

In a reverse of the United States, paternalistic Britain's public TV began regular service Nov. 2, 1936, preceding its commercial TV by 19 years. So the two-channel commercial ITV is the child of non-commercial BBC and--although both systems have their share of clunkers--ITV has been greatly influenced by the BBC's tradition of quality and public service.

That's good news for the rest of the globe, because the British trail only the United States in exporting TV to other countries.

Thames Television is one of those exporters. Its 11-part "Paradise Postponed" is a welcome arrival here, a funny, biting satire that begins in the present and uses flashbacks to trace the faded dreams of post-World War II Britain. Sunday's premiere is 90 minutes, ensuing episodes an hour.

The setting is a village where the Rev. Simeon Simcox (Michael Hordern) is a beloved, wealthy socialist and brewery owner whose death becomes an occasion to examine the community's shocking history. Paradise is definitely on hold here.

This is whopping good soap opera. Mortimer (who created "Rumpole of the Bailey" and adapted Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" for TV) has invented some delightfully addictive characters who, in one way or another, express his own liberal thoughts. There are upper crusts, lower crusts and other crusts.

The story's spiritual hub is the Rev. Simcox, a corny leftist ideologue who has inexplicably left all his money to Leslie Titmuss (is that a name or what?), an obnoxious, opportunistic Conservative politician who seems to stand for most of the things that the parson despised. Why would Simcox omit his wife Dorothy (Annette Crosbie) and sons Henry (Peter Egan) and Fred (Paul Shelley)?

Titmuss (David Threlfall) is a real hoot, such an underhanded snot that he marries the rich and snooty Lord and Lady Fanner's daughter, Charlotte (Zoe Wanamaker), just to advance his career.

Leslie's working-class father objects to the marriage, which surprises Lord Fanner (Richard Vernon).

A stuffy Lord Fanner: "I'm afraid old Titmuss is a terrible snob."

A sniffing Lady Fanner (Jill Bennett): "Thank God there are a few of us left."

With few exceptions (one of them a show-biz lunch that's a silly caricature), Mortimer's story is wonderfully droll and great fun, beautifully set against the lush countryside, moved along at a good pace by director Alvin Rakoff, with one good performance following another. It's the sort of thing that has made "Masterpiece Theatre" one of TV's joys.

Thank God there are a few of them left.

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