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COVER STORY

Adventures With 'Uncle Silas'

November 25, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

British actress Sue Johnston, one of the stars of the new "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation "My Uncle Silas," likens the heartwarming comedy-drama to "putting on very comfortable slippers. You sit down and enjoy it and let the warmth run over you."

"It's very undemanding and light and touching and quite moving and amusing," says director Philip Saville ("The Buccaneers"). "It almost has nothing to do with what is going on today."

Airing Monday on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV, the gentle drama finds five-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney having a field day as the randy rapscallion Uncle Silas, who hosts his 10-year-old grandnephew Edward (Joe Prospero) to an adventurous summer in the country in the early 1900s. "My Uncle Silas" is based on H.E. Bates' ("The Darling Buds of May," "Love for Lydia") 1939 collection of short stories, which were a fictionalized account of his boyhood in Northamptonshire and the colorful stories of his elderly uncle.

The two-hour drama is divided into five short sketches--in the first episode, Edward, whom Silas refers to as Ned, comes to visit Silas on the day his son is getting married. In another sketch, Silas has a brief, sexy and touching encounter with a beautiful spinster (Charlotte Rampling) who is dying of consumption. Throughout the five stories, Silas is constantly bickering and flirting with his sharp-tongued and feisty housekeeper, Mrs. Betts (Johnston).

"I showed the first two episodes to my mother, who is 86," says Johnston. "The look of delight on her face.... She said it was like being back to her grandmother's. It was exactly how it was for her as a child--horse-drawn carriages, the countryside."

Johnston believes "Uncle Silas" is the perfect antidote to the fear and terror that have consumed people since the Sept. 11 tragedies. "You are looking for a way out of horror," she says. "You need to escape from reality for a bit. H.E. Bates' [England] wasn't truly reality, but you want [the past] to be that, that is how safe it was, that's how lovely it was. Let's lose ourselves in that for a couple of hours."

Because Bates didn't flesh out Mrs. Betts in his stories, Johnston created a whole history for her. "I have a feeling she was a married woman but had no children and lost her husband," she says. "When Silas' wife died, she moved in and brought up the kid, his son. They are like an old married couple. I think they had a [sexual] relationship, but whether they have it or still do...."

Finney has been quoted as saying that Silas is a chip off the old block of Tom Jones, the charming young rogue that made the actor an international star and sex symbol in the 1963 Oscar-winning film of the same name. "Silas is an old country rogue, a bit of a poacher, who drinks homemade wine and tries to grab every passing female he can," Finney has stated. "He's Tom Jones with a bus pass, actually."

Though it's hard to believe anybody but Finney bringing "Uncle Silas" to life, Oliver Reed was originally set to play the part. Three weeks before filming was to start in the summer of 1999, he died on the set of "Gladiator."

"We tried desperately to recast it," says Saville. "We couldn't find anyone to fill his boots. I had to shoot it in the summertime to get decent weather. We postponed it for a year."

Saville, who has known Finney for years, didn't know if an actor of that status would be interested in the project, which is being telecast as a weekly series in England. Finney, though, was an easy sell. He read the script and eagerly jumped on board, even putting on weight for the part. "He is quite solid," Saville says of Finney. "He likes his life. I asked him to put on a few pounds and it wasn't difficult."

"Despite the fact that Oliver may have been very, very good, to get Albert Finney to play the part was a great triumph," says "Uncle Silas" adapter Robert Banks Stewart. "Albert has a kind of humanity and, being the sort of actor he is, he moves from being sort of a rambunctious, bucolic poacher, gravedigger, womanizer and boozer, and he suddenly changes gear and becomes a nice human being."

*

"Masterpiece Theater: My Uncle Silas" can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS stations KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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