Host: Russell Baker.

Host: Russell Baker.

Kicking off with the bombast of a rousing Texas Western gone South African, Masterpiece Theatre’s six-hour, three-part “Rhodes” is in fact only three-quarters the length of the original eight-hour BBC telecast, which explains odd transitions, character shifts, abrupt editing (BBC did the cutting for its American cousins) and occasional continuity hurdles. But what is there tends to be a vigorous, if incomplete, whopper.

A knowledge of history, geography and South African custom would help to understand this handsome, skip-along account of the 19th-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Originally edited creatively by Ian Farr, the production gives no quarter to anyone unfamiliar with the period covered, beginning in the 1870s, when 18-year-old Rhodes (Joe Shaw) joins brother Herbert in the diamond fields as he uncompromisingly starts his empire.

Writer Antony Thomas weaves the bio backward and forward under the challenging, sympathetic hand of director David Drury, with flashback flashed on flashback. Accents, jargon and slang are at times difficult, if not impossible, and actions and motivations, because of the deletions, are often obscure.

Yet it’s three nights of sweeping drama with splendidly energetic passages — i.e. battlefields, open mine diggings, political shenanigans and insightful confrontations. But there’s too much skimming, too many quick jumps about the remarkable Rhodes’ absorbing life and personality. At times charming, at others violently angry, often calculatingly soft-spoken and sometimes passionate, scripter Thomas’ asexual Rhodes stands astride his world without question.

The middle-aged Rhodes (played with a wide, fascinating range by Martin Shaw) , fervently insisting on having “the whole uncivilized world under British rule, ” inexplicably tells pursuing, enigmatic Polish Princess Radziwill (stunning Frances Barber) about how as a teenager he was fired up by a speech by John Ruskin at Oxford, where young Rhodes was matriculating. He’d been sent to South Africa in the 1870s for health reasons (he had a heart attack at 19; it’s not mentioned here) and to work with brother Herbert (Tim Dutton) in the diamond fields.

The younger Rhodes, who becomes friends with Christmas (Patrick Shai), captain of the black miners, spots the future in diamond mining. Rhodes’ ideas are innovative — combine outfits, take over De Beers and the Kimberley Mines, restrict output to control prices, treat native workers with some dignity. He gains power not only through diamonds and gold, but through politics — power enough to become Cape Town prime minister.

He and onetime partner John Merriman (Philip Godowa), a liberal parliamentarian, have a falling out. Suspected spy Radziwill, appearing frequently throughout the series, contacts Merriman, tells him she’s Rhodes’ secret fiancee and quizzes him; it’s unfathomable why Merriman recites to her what he knows about Rhodes’ personal life. Several other Rhodes confidants also sit for Radziwill interviews; she’s a curious lady, in both meanings of the phrase.

At any rate, Merriman tells of celibate Rhodes’ ardent paternalism when Neville Pickering (Raymond Coulthard), Rhodes’ private secretary, becomes part of the future tycoon’s household and life. Series host Russell Baker begs the question about Rhodes’ subsequent succession of good-looking young male secretary-companions by chalking it up to Victorian custom. Though male secretaries were not unusual in the England of that era, Rhodes’ devotion would seem to go considerably past professional dependence. His farewell to Pickering is loaded with anguish and sorrow: He not only weeps but collapses at the funeral of his close friend. The attitude displays a tender side to a man considered ruthless by most.

Dr. Leander Jameson (Neil Pearson), called in to help save Pickering, becomes Rhodes’ dependable friend and a formidable leader of the British forces in their fight for dominion. Eventually he, as with so many of Rhodes’ immediate followers, becomes a major figure in South African politics.

Miniseries tentatively explores the politics of South Africa, Rhodes’ position as prime minister and the cultures that were co-existing at the time. It was Rhodes who introduced apartheid, for instance; white supremacy is part of his legacy. Wealthy beyond count, his aim was to create an all-English-speaking South African empire. Tomorrow the world.

The Boers’ President Kruger (Carel Trichardt) tries desperately to hang on to the Boers’ province of Transvaal, which Rhodes demands. Rhodes’ business rival Barney Barnato (Ken Stott), Rhodes’ assistant Harry Currey (Gresby Nash), dashing military contractor Frank Johnson (Gavin Hood) and sturdy John Grimmer (Alex Ferns) all march through the story to create an impression of a constant autocrat who seizes hundreds of thousands of square miles to create a new nation — Rhodesia.

King Lobengula (beautifully played by South African actor Washington Sixolo) of Matabeleland, Rhodes’ prime black challenge because he controls the nation whose land Rhodes wants, marshals his warriors impressively. The battles are magnificent demos of native bravery.

But the native South Africans face modern automatic firepower and doom. With the touching simplicity of a Grecian philosopher, Lobengula commits suicide. One of the sweetest moments of the Rhodesian marathon is the formal appearance and behavior of Lobengula’s two envoys as they prostrate themselves before Queen Victoria (Margaret Hale). She greets them with a touching royal smile.

Stunt work is terrif, and quiet moments play like ominous lulls. Oxford scenes, shot at Johannesburg’s King Edward VII School, look like the genuine article. Johannesburg’s city hall stood in for Windsor Castle interiors. The grounds and the presidential guest house in Pretoria, Nelson Mandela’s official residence, served as Rhodes’ home.

Production designer Maurice Cain and his team built 36 sets and dressed 36 locations. Thanks to Alec Curtis’ striking camerawork, an amazing wind storm, burning mines and fierce battles dazzle, and nature’s rebellions are duly recorded. Some 200 actors and 10,000 extras were summoned to appear, and designer Cain’s imaginative contributions are imposing. Lyn Avery created the striking costumes, and Alan Parker penned the numerous musical themes so ably backing the series.

As for really knowing Cecil Rhodes, it’s hard to say. He was self-centered, hot-tempered, unethical, cynical and greedy. What the eliminated two hours might have illuminated remains unknown on this side of the Atlantic, but the Yankee hand-down remains lusty and impressive.

Masterpiece Theater Rhodes

(Sun. (4), Mon. (5), Tues. (6), 9-11 p.m., PBS)

Production

Filmed in South Africa by Zenith Prods. for BBC-TV, WGBH Boston, CBC Canada and SABC South Africa. Executive producers, Michael Wearing, Antony Thomas; executive producer for WGBH, Rebecca Eaton; producers, Charles Salmon, Scott Meek; director, David Drury; writer-creator, Thomas.

Crew

Camera, Alec Curtis; editor , Ian Farr; production designer, Maurice Cain; art director, Justin Warbuton-Brown; costume designer, Lyn Avery; sound, Rudiger Payrhuber; music, Alan Parker; casting, Sarah Bird, Christa Schamburger. 6 hours.

Cast

Cast: Martin Shaw, Frances Barber, Joe Shaw, Patrick Shai, Tim Dutton, David Butler, Philip Godowa, Mark Drewry, John Rogers, Ken Stott, Neil Pearson, Frantz Dobrowsky, Nicky Rebelo, Raymond Coulthard, John Carson, Sean Taylor, Gresby Nash, Richard Huw, Timothy Walker, Washington Sixolo, Ramalao Makhene, Ken Gampu , Ron Smerczak, Ian Roberts, Jeremy Crutchley, Janine Eser, Paul Slabolepszy, Margaret Hale, Victor Mellaney, Vusi Kunene, Michael Atkinson, Antony Thomas, Oliver Cotton, Gavin Hood, Alex Ferns, Rex Garner, Sam Williams, Mawongo Tyawa, Todd Jensen, Paul Eilers, Carel Trichardt, Peter Guiness, Greg Melvill-Smith, Guy de Lancey, Will Bernard, Nicky Rebelo, Colin Roberts.
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