Host: Alistair Cooke.

Host: Alistair Cooke.

Masterpiece Theater goes for the tea-and-crumpet crowd with an assembly of words written in one way or another — letters, diaries and journals — by Sir Sydney Cockerell, Dame Laurentia McLachlan and G.B. Shaw early in the century. With John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller and Patrick McGoohan assigned in that order to the roles, it’s vocal chamber music that grows at times uncomfortably precious; the teleplay doesn’t persuade anyone, as presented here, that the three really are the best of chums.

Play, taped in 1991, is based on the given that the three people — museum curator Cockerell, Roman Catholic Abbess McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, and Shaw — exchanged warm letters, amusing opinions and warm confidences over many years. Whitemore combines their writings in an admirable freedom-of-time manner and physical openness.

As the play progresses, the physicality blurs so that the good nun can move from her barred convent to appear in short scenes with the men; at one point, she travels through London on business and is able to spend the day with Cockerell. It’s a shining moment.

There are gleaming passages in the talkfest as the three air views, though at times the script plays like solo turns with Rakoff coming up with leaden bits of business to keep viewers’ eyes on the screen.

With such characters, how much wiser it would have been to rework the three’s writings and turn up an engrossing play; plucking hard-and-fast lines from their written output is too confining.

Two other problems plague the venture: First is Rakoff’s vision of the cold, name-dropping Cockerell, a curator who also collects well-known figures, revels in gossip and is a self-satisfied prig. Second slippage is McGoohanas Shaw, whom he doesn’t resemble and doesn’t sound like, and on at least two occasions acts distractingly foolish.

Gielgud pins the curator down, making Cockerell distant and snobbish–enough to raise questions about how the other two could be his friend. Hiller quietly dominates program, illustrating the essence of practical spirituality.

Masterpiece Theatre the Best of Friends

(Sun. (18), 9-10:30 p.m., PBS)

Production

Taped by London Film Prods. in association with Table Top Prods. and Limehouse Prods. Exec producers, Johan Eliasch, Steven North, Tom Donald; producer-director, Alvin Rakoff; script, Hugh Whitemore, based on his stage play; art director, Sonja Klaus.

Crew

Music, Sidney Sager; production designer, Eileen Diss.

Cast

Cast: John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Patrick McGoohan.
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