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TV REVIEWS : Book's Appeal Gets Lost in Translation

March 20, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE

Perhaps you had to read the book, but the BBC production of Peter Mayle's runaway best-seller, "A Year in Provence," is weak tea--or so it seems judging from the first of four two-hour segments that airs Sunday on A&E (5 and 9 p.m.).

John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan give amiable performances as the transplanted Mayles in a television dramatization by Michael Sadler in which the contentment of having traded the dampness and hustle of London for the pastoral rewards of Provence is expected to suffice.

Well and good, but it's hard to squeeze drama out of two happy people wallowing in new-found joy. And in the absence of Mayle's crisp running commentary (in the book), these televised events are less than they ought to be.

Instead of big city dramas, we are given small country ones: frozen pipes; drivers who run you off the road; workmen who don't show up when they say they will (you don't have to go to Provence for that); and sinister-looking neighbors who hunt foxes, leave them on your doorstep and suggest a great recipe for blood stew.

What "A Year in Provence" the television series unintentionally manages to do is make a witty and self-deprecating book seem elitist and a little dull.

Not that the actors don't try to breathe a certain comic flair into the butcher's taste for argument or his wife's habit of repeating whatever he says. But it's huffing and puffing. There always seem to be the same three people in the shop, and the shallow stereotyping--from the ill-humored mailman to the preening Parisian neighbor--is no substitute for real people.

Thaw tries to create suspense by putting on his sleuthing cap when he's rooked by some locals into buying a bad batch of truffles. Bad truffles? Mon Dieu. Do we care? Not much--though more than we care about the unfinished plumbing.

You get the drift. The effect in the end is of a travelogue with an identity crisis. There's a difference between reading about gastronomic adventures and merely staring at photographs of elegantly arranged Provencal food. It's Gourmet Magazine sans text.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the book's appeal would be lost in translation. Quel dommage. For some unexplained reason, many of the names have been changed. Perhaps to protect the innocent.

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