Host: Russell Baker. Masterpiece Theatre” returns to its origins with David Lodge’s well-thought-out adaptation of Dickens’ classic comic novel “Martin Chuzzlewit,” whose early pace may try viewers’ patience. Soon, though, it hits its stride under Pedr James’ inventive direction, and the Chuzzlewit greed genes are at full tilt. Lodge, James and the smart ensemble play at shaking out the greed and selfishness in style.
Paul Scofield adroitly limns both rich, tricky Old Martin Chuzzlewit and his disagreeable brother, Anthony, until the latter expires in the second episode. Old Martin, continuing his vinegary ways, disinherits grandson Young Martin (Ben Walden) and depends on his ward, pretty, orphaned Mary Graham (Pauline Turner).
For his own reasons, Old Martin plays up to oozy cousin Seth Pecksniff (Tom Wilkinson, in a victorious characterization). Seth, a sometimes architect, harbors Young Martin as one of his live-in pupils but boots him out at Old Martin’s command. (Lodge and the producers ditch most of Young Martin’s horrendous American adventures.)
Tightfisted Seth aims to inherit the old gent’s fortune. Fat chance. There’s a line of relatives armed with the same ambition. Anthony’s nasty, niggardly son , Jonas (Keith Allen), sees something in one of Seth’s daughters, and there’s a cruel proposal scene that’s a gem. Dickens’ secondary characters, as usual, loom larger than plot. Worthy Tom Pinch (Philip Franks) sees good in all; Mr. Chuffey (John Mills) remains loyal to Anthony, whose fancy funeral supplies mystery to a tale replete with murder and suicide.
While Old Martin, Young Martin and Pecksniff are the supposed centers of the story, nightmare nurse Sairey Gamp (Elizabeth Spriggs) looms smashingly; the scenes she shares with fellow nurse and equally self-indulgent Mrs. Prig (Joan Sims) are pips — often unintelligible, but pips.
Would-be adaptors, screenwriters and producers would profit by a study of Lodge’s work on “Chuzzlewit.” The adaptation’s characters and plotline stick to Dickens’ intentions, despite omissions, and the five-part dramatization does even more: It catches the original’s blithe spirit.
Jeremy Turner’s on-target costumes and Gavin Davies and Ash Wilkinson’s imaginative Victorian designs and settings look like the real thing (had there been such a thing) in this superb production.
John Kenway’s lensing is laudable, and editing by John Rosser and Dawn Mears reinforces director James’ sure-handed pacing. Geoffrey Burgon’s score plays along behind scenes almost as a cushion.