Ferdinand Fairfax's excellent adaptation of Joanna Trollope's (b. 1943) first `non-historical' novel, originally published in 1988, was originally serialised around March 1995. The total viewing time is in excess of 4 hours and this 2 DVD set is nicely presented, although lacking extra features.
The Dean of Aldminster Cathedral, Hugh Cavendish (James Fox) is short of money; the precious and unique organ has recently been replaced and now significant sections of the roof, and its timbers, are found to be defective and in urgent need of skilled and costly repair. Conceivably, money could be raised by releasing funds normally spent upon the maintenance of Aldminster's Cathedral's well-known boys' choir. And this is precisely what the Dean intends to do, much to the shock and dismay of Alexander Troy (David Warner) the noble Headmaster of the Cathedral School, and even more especially to the Choirmaster and Organist, Leo Beckford - convincingly played by Nicholas Farrell. Also involved in this mêlée is wily but seasoned Councillor Frank Ashworth (Peter Vaughan) and the Dean's scheming wife, Bridget Cavendish.
The impact (of what could be interpreted as the Dean's own mutant form of crass Beechingesque monetarism) upon the relationships and the former state of apparent interdependency amongst the various residents and `parties' within the cathedral close is dealt with in a sensitive, yet surprisingly acceptable manner in both book and screenplay alike. The weaving of the plot and subplots draw in certain socio-political issues and also raises the endemic matter of `state' interference or governance of `the Church' at large. The backcloth is the glorious, superficially tranquil cathedral close and, of course, the aisles, transepts and, more poignantly, the lighting and rafters around the cathedral's creaking roof timbers!
This series is well remembered for helping to stir something of a revival within the sphere of Anglican ecclesiastical music. Anthony Way (a genuine chorister from St Paul's School, London), who played Henry Ashworth, the budding chorister in the Boys' Choir at Aldminster, became something of a junior star through his spirited, if marginally chorographed, rendition of pieces like George Stanford's 'Magnificat in G' et al. As already hinted at, the cinematography is first-rate and will not disappoint those who swoon over the incomparable glories of England's cathedrals and abbeys!
Of course, a number of literary critics have enjoyed drawing parallels between the cloistered, echoic environs of the fictitious Aldminster Cathedral - actually Gloucester, within which virtually the entire plot is cast - and with the world of Barchester, previously made famous by Trollope's ancestor. Indeed, Joanna Trollope pens like one at home in an ecclesiastical, especially an Anglican environment and both the book and DVD are thoroughly drenched in details discernible only to one more fully immersed in the font of Anglican 'Churchianity'. In fact, Trollope herself hails from the ancient Cotswold market town of Minchinhampton, in Gloucestershire, where she was born in her grandfather's rectory!
Apart from the rather abrupt and altogether too patently Mills & Boon finale to this adaptation, there is little else to set about. The casting proved to be a huge triumph and put this alongside the rousing score and the excellent screenplay and this is a production which this reviewer is happy to commend with very few reservations.
Michael Calum Jacques (aka Mike MacKinnon, former radio presenter)