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Television Reviews : 'Northanger Abbey'

December 05, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

There's one scene in "Masterpiece Theatre's" presentation of Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" that's a humdinger. Genteel Englishwomen--and a few men--of the early 1800s are taking the baths at Bath, wading chest-high and fully clothed in their gaudy, plumed hats, carrying on conversation.

It's both ridiculous and entrancing, and full credit goes to adapter Maggie Wadey, producer Louis Marks and director Giles Foster. Reportedly, they invented the scene, which isn't in Austen's 1818 novel.

On the other hand, full blame also appears to go to Wadey, Marks and Foster for the remainder of this 90-minute BBC/PBS mess (9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 15; delayed to 10 p.m. Monday on Channel 28 because of pledge drive programming.)

Veteran viewers of "Masterpiece Theatre" who've steeled themselves to the program's decline in recent years still may not be prepared for this debacle.

"Northanger Abbey" was written before "Pride and Prejudice" and most of Austen's other works, but was not published until 1818, a year after the author's death.

In the book, Austen had some fun with the female fascination for gothic novels during her era. Her heroine reads too many heavy-breathing tomes like "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and mixes fantasy with reality, viewing every man as a potential madman/lover who'll sweep her off to a castle where dark secrets await.

While Wadey may have been trying to capture the same spoof-ish feeling, it's as if she wrote her script with sticky fingers and turned two pages of the book at a time. The film hops from scene to scene and character to character and place to place in a restless, aimless way that confuses and confounds the viewer.

As heroine Catherine Morland, actress Katharine Schlesinger merely gawks at everything and everyone with moony eyes. Her role seems so passive and poorly played that one suspects that soon after production started her lines were cut in half.

The other actors, including Peter Firth ("Equus") and veteran Robert Hardy, fare little better. The direction is, too be kind, erratic--ersatz Ken Russell in the fantasy scenes, merely awkward in others. Those who watch "Abbey" as semi-intentional camp will enjoy a couple of horrendous lighting goofs. The music--all wailing voices, corny horns and cheesy ornamentation--is the final straw that makes you believe this must be a put-on.

Main trouble: T'ain't funny, Maggie. If some culture vulture or camp follower forces you to watch "Abbey," try to enjoy the elaborate clothes and these people who seemed to have nothing to do but go to balls and baths, take snuff and let their repressed imaginations go wild . . . and to write novels that TV would screw up 170 years later.

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