Masterpiece Theatre Portrait of a Marriage Parts I-III

Host: Alistair Cooke.

Host: Alistair Cooke.

While “I, Claudius” may have have startled as well as titillated PBS viewers, the latest “Masterpiece Theater” entry, an account of English writer Vita Sackville-West, her lifetime affair (described by host Alistair Cooke as only three years) with Violet Keppel Trefusis, and her enduring marriage to Harold Nicolson should hit 10 on the Richter. Directed to brooding effect by Stephen Whittaker, “Masterpiece” watchers should dropa collective jaw with this one.

Shown in England to great acclaim, PBS, shortening the original, graphic vidseries by 34 minutes, is offering local pubcasters two versions–one two minutes briefer than the other so that each station can select how much flesh will be exposed. KCET is airing the unedited American copy.

Brit import introduces Vita and husband Harold, British diplomat-historian, in 1940 at their home in Kent (the house was used in much of the filming) before flashing back to 1913. Encountering her schoolchum, the unmarried, seductive Violet on whom she had had a crush (part of the expurgated material), Vita finds herself head over heels.

Though Harold, too, has been having same-sex affairs, his marriage and their two sons are of paramount importance; Vita’s obsessed, and her chief priority is Violet. It’s the heart of the vidseries.

The two women kiss, loll about in the buff, and generally play the young lovers; their passion is dished out even in this version with less discretion than TV usually accords heterosexual romances. Vita’s passion eventually becomes all-important to her–and, for viewers, Vita is portrayed as undisciplined, cruel and self-serving.

Janet McTeer brings forth Vita’s determination, strength and weaknesses. David Haig creates an admirable study with his loving, strong-minded Nicolson. As “that dreadful woman” Violet, Cathryn Harrison is tantalizingly impetuous and aglow, and Peter Birch as Violet’s eventual husband reflects stability and patience. Diana Fairfax impersonates the flamboyant Lady Sackville, Vita’s Spanish mother, with flair.

Visually and dramatically “Marriage” is terrif, with Dinah Collins’s costumes and designer Stuart Walker’s contributions top of the line in establishing the period piece’s English and continental look and feel. Gratifying touches such as Harold flying directly home from Paris, the Nicolsons’ cluttered home, Vita brooding in dark areas about Violet, or the madness of an Amiens hotel confrontation emphasize the proportions of Vita’s life and milieu

Adaptor Penelope Mortimer, who writes strong, well-rounded scenes, illuminates the darker corners in this aspect of Vita Sackville-West’s life. David Feig’s deliberate camerawork with its rich tones is stunning, and Dick Allen’s editing is assured. Barrington Pheloung’s music underscores themes and action without intruding.

Masterpiece Theatre Portrait of a Marriage Parts I-III

(Sun. (19), 9-10:30 p.m.; Suns. (26. 8/2), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Filmed on location in Nice, Paris, London and in Kent by BBC-TV Prods. in association with WGBH Boston and TV New Zealand Ltd. Exec producer, Colin Roger; exec producer, WGBH, Rebecca Eaton; producer, Colin Tucker; director, Stephen Whittaker; writer, Penelope Mortimer; from Nigel Nicolson's book "Portrait of a Marriage".
  • Crew: Camera, David Feig; editor, Dick Allen; sound, Terry Elms; music, Barrington Pheloung; production designer, Stuart Walker.
  • Cast: Cast: Janet McTeer, David Haig, Cathryn Harrison, Peter Birch, Diana Fairfax, Steinvor Palsson, Simon Harrison, Cathryn Bradshaw, John Bleasdale, Yves Aubert, Nicholas Johnson, Mark Tandy, Sam Beazley, Kathleen Byron, Hazel Douglas, Angus Pope, Hugh Kermode, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Frank Duncan, Bill Thomas, Judy Elrington, Christopher Walker, Alexander Pearce, Harry Audley, Sandra Clark, Stefan Schwartz, Madelaine Newton, Mark Griffith, Claude Le Sache.