Masterpiece Theatre the Cinder Path

Host: Russell Baker. Masterpiece Theatre" takes a dip with Alan Seymour's adaptation of "The Cinder Path," by British pop novelist Catherine Cookson, writer of 1993's sudsy "The Black Velvet Gown." Under Simon Langton's uninspired direction, the travails of 1913 farmboy Charlie MacFell don't take long toirk.

Host: Russell Baker. Masterpiece Theatre” takes a dip with Alan Seymour’s adaptation of “The Cinder Path,” by British pop novelist Catherine Cookson, writer of 1993’s sudsy “The Black Velvet Gown.” Under Simon Langton’s uninspired direction, the travails of 1913 farmboy Charlie MacFell don’t take long toirk.

Son of the farm’s well-to-do tyrannical owner, tough-luck Charlie (Lloyd Owen) helps a farmhand get away with killing Charlie’s own father (Tom Bell). He learns that farmhand Ginger Slater (Antony Byrne), spotted the murder. Slater hates the whole farm-owning MacFell clan and now he’s got a good hold on Charlie. Not that Charlie doesn’t have plenty of other miseries. His dad commits him to marrying beautiful, loose Victoria Chapman (Catherine Zeta Jones) from the next farm over. All that land! Nellie (Maria Miles), Victoria’s younger, plain, daft sister, longs for Charlie. Charlie’s dour sister Betty (Victoria Scarborough), who lights no corner in which she sits, thinks she’s always getting the short end of the stick.

Warmed-over vixen Victoria keeps her own house in town while passive, pacifist husband Charlie, who avoids any conflict with a dazed look, is conscripted for service in the Great War. Slater turns up as his sergeant in basic training, and Charlie tells Nellie before heading for the trenches in France that he loves her. Maudlin story splatters around in wearying circles.

The plotting’s lightweight, the characters nail-polish deep. The Brits, more than any other filmmakers, have consistently found prime dramatic material in the First World War — until now. Battle scenes look rigged, the trenches stagey , the atmosphere phony. The country locales in northeast England are pastoral and attractive, and designer Ash Wilkinson’s interiors are authentic-looking.

Lloyd Owen as Charlie looks glum amidst the unhappy happenings, but Catherine Zeta Jones, the electric Eustacia Vye in Hallmarks’s “The Return of the Native,” almost makes the worn-out characterization work. Miles’ unstable Nellie certainly convinces, and Scarborough’s tightlipped Betty is a sure thing. Antony Byrne’s nasty Ginger is a strain, but Tom Bell’s brief MacFell Senior shows how to be mean.

Host Russell Baker praises the work of the 88-year-old Cookson, who’s still churning out bestsellers; viewers should take note. Barrington Pheloung has mustered up a supportive score for the disappointing entry, and tech credits are OK. Here’s suds in your eyes.

Masterpiece Theatre the Cinder Path

(Sun. (12, 19, 26), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Filmed on location in Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire, England, and at Tyne Tees TV Studios by World Wide Intl. TV/Festival Films TV. Exec producers, Ray Townsend, Keith Richardson; producer, Ray Marshall; director , Simon Langton; writer, Alan Seymour; based on Catherine Cookson's novel.
  • Crew: Camera, John Hooper; editor, Chris Wimble; sound, Nic Grant; music, Barrington Pheloung; production designer, Ash Wilkinson.
  • Cast: Cast: Lloyd Owen, Catherine Zeta Jones, Tom Bell, Maria Miles, Rosalind Ayers, Antony Byrne, Madelaine Newton, Lucy Akhurst, Victoria Scarborough, Michael Wardle, Alan Bird, John Gill, Ralph Ineson, Polly Adams, Declan Donnelly , Patricia Dunn, Valerie Hanson, Philip Corbitt, Osmund Bullock, John Warnaby, Darren Newton, Rupert Wickham, Bren Laidler, Allison Jupp, David Hounslow, Mark Warren, Neil Armstrong, David MacCreedy, Rod Jinks, Michael Parkhouse, Jeremy Child, Allison Ambler, Nicholas Hutchinson.
  • Music By: