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Shady doings afoot in Victorian times

February 03, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

VICTORIAN ENGLAND — where would public television be without it? Its savory mix of good manners, sexual sublimation and intense romanticism, the heightened sensibilities of a time when a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as something shocking, can delight a modern palate dulled by a diet of too much, too often.

Sunday night, and next Sunday night, "Masterpiece Theatre" offers a pair of period thrillers, one a modern pastiche adapted from a 1985 young adult novel, the other the 10 millionth variation on the 1897 Bram Stoker classic, "Dracula." They come at their subjects from opposite directions, as it were, the first fitting a modern sensibility to an imagined past, the second updating an old text in an attempt to suit modern tastes.

"The Ruby in the Smoke," which airs first, is based on Book 1 of a trilogy by the writer Philip Pullman. Here Pullman mixes Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins with a pinch of Sax Rohmer and a bucket of Nancy Drew in what he has himself called "old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder." (It's subtler than that sounds.)

A cursed jewel finds its way into the life, or near to the life, of a recently orphaned Sally Lockhart (Billie Piper), 16 years old on the page, but on the screen merely "not yet 20." Like all good heroines, Lucy is something of an outsider, not bound by convention. Though she has none of the accomplishments expected of a young lady of her time, she can shoot a pistol, speak Hindustani "and read an accounts ledger as easily as a newspaper." She is hard to rattle: When a man dies right in front of her, she doesn't so much as say "Golly."

Sally does find a few like-minded peers, who band together finally into a kind of Scooby Gang cum proto-socialist bohemian household. There is a photographer (JJ Fields), who hips Sally to governmental complicity in the opium trade (the "smoke" of the title); his actress sister (Hayley Atwell) and a lively Cockney lad (Matt Smith) who works for Sally's late father's firm. Other characters come and go, as they are abducted or murdered. As in many stories written for younger people, whose heroes are younger people, older people are not to be relied upon, and often not to be trusted.

Piper, who does remarkably rich work on "Doctor Who," given that it's a show about two people flying around the universe in a telephone booth, is good here, and I will be happy to see more of her in the role. But "The Rose in the Smoke" would be worth your while if only for Julie Walters (of "Educating Rita," and the Harry Potter movies, where she plays Mrs. Weasley, and much in between) as the villainess, a dry, deadly woman sporting a set of too-large false teeth plucked from the mouth of her dead husband.

Marc Warren, who plays charming streetwise Danny Blue on "Hustle," the con-man dramedy seen here on AMC, is the marquee face inhabiting "Dracula." Warren's Terence Stamp-like roguishness makes him a likely choice to play Vlad the seducer, but there isn't much to the character as written or played -- just a self-satisfied serial killer, with a bit of rock star vibe.

The vampire is the most attractive, educated, philosophical and self-aware of your Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the most sociable: His needs put him always on the make. This isn't the first "Dracula" in which the bloodsucking is portrayed as a fundamentally sexual act, although it is not always quite so trowel-obvious as it is here.

Departures from the Stoker novel are by now so routine that no adaptation can really be faulted for straying from it, only for where they go. This one wanders pretty far afield. I suppose this keeps the familiar viewer wondering what will happen next, though what happens next does not always reward the wondering. There is a subplot involving syphilis -- this is a "Dracula" with sex, and the lack of it, weighing heavily on its mind -- and a secret society of vampire worshipers. There are some good scenes along the way, but the awful cliche of the closing frames undoes much that comes before.


`Masterpiece Theatre'

What: "The Ruby in the Smoke"

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)



What: "Dracula"

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Feb. 11

Rating: TV-MA-S,V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17, with advisories for sex and violence)

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