With a script by the talented John Mortimer (“Rumpole of the Bailey”), a superbly chosen cast and Charles Beeson’s supple, sensitive direction, this 90-minute evocation of vanished pastoralism makes for compelling — albeit unapologetically sentimental — television. Best of all, viewers get to hear the voice of Laurie Lee himself, as his elegiac narration peppers the drama. Odd that it has taken “Masterpiece Theater” so long to get around to “Cider With Rosie,” Lee’s 1959 memoir of his Cotswold boyhood, yet the wait was clearly worth it.
Set between the two world wars, Lee’s tale recounts an enchanted rural childhood as only the English seem to live it. Long walks up and down verdant hillsides and beside babbling streams contrast with warm family scenes in which poverty isn’t so much a hardship as a common-sense alternative to wealth. It’s against this background that Lee — played first by Dashiell Reece and then by Joe Roberts — encounters a host of odd characters, including Miss Flynn (Emily Mortimer), an ill-fated pre-Raphaelite beauty; Mr. and Mrs. Brown (Hugh Lloyd and Katherine Page), a decrepit old couple fiercely devoted to each other; and Grannies Trill and Wallon (Margery Withers and Freda Dowie, respectively), two warring bad-tempered spinsters.
But these people aren’t at the center of Laurie’s universe, nor is the eponymous Rosie (Lia Barrow), who doesn’t even appear until near the program’s end. It’s Laurie’s mother, Annie (Juliet Stevenson), who holds his world together. Left with eight children after her husband deserts her, Annie alone must provide for the Lee clan. That accomplishment is what Lee’s book and this teleplay celebrate.
Though Stevenson’s tender turn as Annie lights up the small screen, no one in the cast disappoints. That’s especially true of Reece and Roberts, the two young actors who play the diffident Laurie. Yet aside from Rex Maidment’s gorgeous lensing, it’s the weathered voice of the author, who died in 1997 at the age of 82, that leaves the most lasting impact. Lee’s nostalgic but pointed language tugs at the heartstrings in an uncommonly forceful manner, for here is this drama’s very real protagonist enjoining viewers to share with him a bittersweet trip down memory lane.
It’s an offer only the most unfeeling among us will decline.