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TV Review : 'The Choir' Pits Art Against Architecture


What shall it be? Save the choir or repair the cathedral? The issue in Sunday night's initial installment of "Masterpiece Theatre's" four-part "The Choir" is simple and to the point.

When Aldminster Cathedral's Dean Hugh Cavendish, portrayed with proper sternness by James Fox, is confronted with the choice of either funding a vital restoration of his ancient edifice or continuing to underwrite the institution's much-revered all-boys choir, he does not hesitate to pick the former.

The debate engendered by his decision spreads to the entire community, setting the Dean and his crusty allies against a save-the-choir faction led by Headmaster Alexander Troy (played with stiff-upper-lip determination by David Warner) and Choirmaster Leo Beckford (in a hyperventilated portrayal by Nicholas Farrell).

Along the way, as people take sides and anger escalates, nearly everyone is affected by the controversy.

The choir's star singer, 11-year-old Henry Ashworth (acted and sung, beautifully, by Anthony Way in his film debut) records a CD that becomes a critical cog in the ensemble's possible preservation. But his affectionate relationship with his grandfather, Frank Ashworth (Peter Vaughn), a town councilor who negotiates a financial arrangement with the Dean, is jeopardized by a love affair between Beckford and young Ashworth's mother, Sally (Cathryn Harrison, granddaughter of Sir Rex Harrison).

If this all sounds complicated, it is. And the problem of sorting out the multitude of dramatic threads is compounded by the fact that it takes an interminable amount of time--at least two episodes--for the story to get fully up and running.

The script was adapted from a novel by Joanna Trollope, a fifth-generation niece of 19th-Century novelist Anthony Trollope, and author of last season's "The Rector's Wife." Perhaps understandably, screenwriter Ian Curteis--Trollope's husband--seems to have made a major effort to remain true to the novel. But the net result is that director Ferdinand Fairfax was obliged to work with a script whose pacing can best be described as glacial.

* The first episode of "The Choir" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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