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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Dr. Finlay's caseload gets lighter in his second season on 'Masterpiece'


It's a bit jarring when David Rintoul answers the door of a friend's house dressed in boots, blue jeans and a tailored white shirt.

Fans of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" are accustomed to seeing the 45-year-old Scottish actor in period dress. In 1980's "Pride and Prejudice," he played Jane Austen's stuffy 19th-Century hero, Mr. Darcy. And in the current "Dr. Finlay," which begins a second season of six episodes Sunday, Rintoul stars as the serious-minded doctor working in a small Scottish town after World War II.

Rintoul has always had one foot in both the classical and contemporary acting worlds. "I left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1971," he explains. 'I very much wanted to join a theater group. A lot of people in my generation did. I found one called the Joint Stock, which was very much a writer's theater group. We worked with writers, usually before the first draft. That was eight years of my life, mostly the '70s."

When plays weren't in production, Rintoul worked on Scottish TV. "A lot of my generation of Scots then were much more kind of character actors than leading men. So I kind of cornered the market a bit (as a leading man). I did a lot of costume stuff as well. It was rather odd doing this kind of classic series and radical theater stuff."

In the 1980s, though, he chose to do more classic theater, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He was doing theater in Sicily when he was offered the role of Dr. John Finlay three years ago.

"Dr. Finlay" is based on characters that Scottish writer A.J. Cronin ("The Citadel") created in the early 1960s for the BBC series "Dr. Finlay's Casebook." The original series was a huge hit. "It was set in the late '20s and early '30s," Rintoul explains. "It was sort of a national institution. So to remake it was very cheeky. I mean it could have fallen flat on its face."

The current "Dr. Finlay" series finds Dr. Finlay as an embittered World War II vet grappling with a heavy caseload of patients and his own financial difficulties. Concerned about the health and lives of his town's residents, he is an ardent supporter of the new idea of the National Health Service. Ian Bannen co-stars as Dr. Alexander Cameron, Finlay's older retired partner; Annette Crosbie plays housekeeper Janet McPherson; and Jason Flemyng is the new substitute physician, Dr. Neil.

Rintoul is pleased that the series has a somber tone. "I think part of the darkness of the series and part of the grittiness was quite deliberate, which is not to apologize for it," he says. "But which is to say, this ain't no soap and this isn't necessarily a comfortable chocolate-box nostalgia family show."

Still, he says, "I think we are lightening up this year. I think he's lightening up. He's not a man who is completely at ease with himself or the world. Why should everything be all smiles?"

Rintoul's father happens to be a retired doctor. "He was a hospital consultant. He did a lot of visiting patients in their homes in rural communities. He's been quite pleased with the series. We have a medical consultant on it. But it's not a documentary; it's a drama. On the other hand, I pretty much wanted doctors, particularly doctors of that generation, to like it."

As a young teen, Rintoul harbored thoughts of following in his father's footsteps. "It went through my mind," he says. "By my mid-teens, I was pretty sure I wanted to do something with theater or TV."

Besides acting on stage and the small screen, Rintoul also reads novels for the popular books-on-tape format. "I've done all the James Bond novels," he says. "I've done most of Freddy (Frederick) Forsyth. I've done, like, 40 or 50 books. I kind of enjoy the one-man band element of it."

Rintoul would like to work in America, but only "if I'm asked. I'm a bit impatient. I've been very lucky in that I've been working for 22 years and I haven't been out of work more than three or four weeks. I hate sitting around and doing nothing. And the idea of coming to L.A., as much as I like L.A., and sitting around (waiting for a job), I'd go up the wall. I enjoy being a British actor."

"Dr. Finlay" begins Sunday at 8 p.m. on KVCR , 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and 8 p.m. on KOCE. A second episode airs at 10 p.m. on KCET.

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