Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon: The Barchester Chronicles (1982)

This post is part of the Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. Read the rest of the devilishly delightful posts in this event HERE!

In my opinion, Victorian era writer Anthony Trollope doesn’t get the attention and acclaim he deserves. Unlike his contemporaries such as Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and Thomas Hardy, whose works seem to be adapted for television or film on a bi-yearly basis, comparatively few adaptations of his works exist.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post listing 9 Reasons Why More People Should Read Anthony Trollope. He is one of my favorite writers; really the only Victorian writer I truly love (sorry, but I find them a dreary bunch for the most part). There’s been a slight increase in interest in his works lately, mainly because Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is clearly a fan. He wrote an adaptation of Trollope’s Dr. Thorne, as well as wrote a novel and TV series called Belgravia, which shows a lot of Trollope influence.

So when this blogathon topic came up, I became very excited, because I had a reason to review The Barchester Chronicles, the superb 1982 miniseries based on two of his novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers.

Now, you may be looking at the screen shots and thinking, “OH NO, a series about CLERGYMEN? HOW BORING.”

You could not be more wrong, my friends.

The story begins centered on a clergyman named Septimus Harding (Donald Pleasence). He is the warden of what is called a hospital (we would call it a nursing or rest home now). Centuries before a wealthy man left in his will property and money for a hospital so a dozen men too old to work could live out their lives in comfort. Over time, the land increased in value and the income it produced also increased. As warden, Harding receives a handsome salary of 800 pounds a year, while the small stipend for the residents has never increased.

An idealistic young doctor named John Bold (David Gwillim) who is concerned about corruption in the church, decides something must be done about this inequity. This causes a personal problem for him as he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor (Janet Maw) and wishes to marry her. Also, he respects Mr. Harding and knows he is not deliberately malicious. When the story becomes the topic of many scathing articles in a popular newspaper, Mr. Harding, who is deeply attached to the men in his care, faces a crisis as he realizes the world now sees him as corrupt.

Harding’s son-in-law Dr. Grantley (Nigel Hawthorne) is the archdeacon of Barchester and furious at Bold for investigating his father-in-law. He fiercely defends Mr. Harding. In the end, Bold stops his crusade, but the damage is done. Mr. Harding resigns his position. Even so, Eleanor forgives him and they marry.

This is the essential plot of The Warden, which occupies the first two episodes of the series.

The story then picks up about two years later. Eleanor is now a widow with a baby son. The bishop (Dr. Grantley’s father) dies and a new bishop is appointed. The new bishop, Mr. Proudie (Clive Swift) is a rather weak man ruled by his shrewish wife Mrs. Proudie (Geraldine McEwan). Along with their chaplain Obadiah Slope (Alan Rickman, in one of his first major roles) they go on a crusade to reform the archdiocese.

Mr. Harding, a musician who delights in playing the cello and composing church music, is dismayed when Slope gives a scathing sermon against music in church. Soon, Mr. Harding and Dr. Grantley are pitted against the Proudies and Slope as they oppose what they see as harmful changes to the archdiocese.

Eleanor, not only widowed but a wealthy widow, becomes the object of both Slope and charming reprobate Bertie Stanhope (Peter Blythe). Mr. Harding and the Grantleys are horrified when Eleanor seems open to Slope’s attentions. Puzzled by their animosity towards Slope, Eleanor is defensive of her new friend.

Bertie is being pushed by his sisters Charlotte (Susan Edmondstone) and Madeline (Susan Hampshire) to pursue her because he needs money. Slope’s motivation is also mercenary, as he simultaneously courts Madeline, even though she is still married to an abusive husband who threw her down some stairs, injuring her so badly she can no longer walk.

Madeline, a charismatic woman who is constantly surrounded by admirers and friends, is also very clever (and, not surprisingly, somewhat cynical). She sees through Slope and is able to bring about his downfall others around her can’t achieve.

As you can see, this is an AMAZING cast of actors. Also in the cast are Donald Pleasence’s daughter Angela Pleasence, who plays Harding’s elder daughter Susan, and Rachel Kempson (matriarch of the Redgrave acting dynasty) as the mother of the Stanhope children.

It sounds on the surface like a rather dark story, but you gotta trust me. This is also a very funny story. I like to compare Trollope to Jane Austen, because like her he was adept at skewering certain types that needed taking down a peg or two. He also wrote amazingly complex characters.

Mr. Harding is a perfect example. He truly is a good man, but he is not immune to rationalizing his large income for very little work. When he faces this flaw in his character, it is devastating to him, even though Dr. Grantley assures him there is nothing wrong with it.

Dr. Grantley is almost like a volcano—he’s ready to erupt at any moment. Yet he is also at heart a good man, very loyal, and treats his wife Susan as a true partner (a contrast with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Proudie).

Eleanor could have been little more than a silly ingenue, but she has a lot more going on than you realize at first. And Obadiah Slope, for all his perfidy, recognizes the hypocrisy of the Proudies (his departing words to them is the best line in the entire series).

All the actors here are so good, but the central performance by Pleasence is what makes the show. Don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which unsurprisingly makes Alan Rickman the dominate image, as by the time it came out he was the most well-known star. This is Pleasence’s triumph. Playing a character most people in real life would probably overlook as insignificant, he makes Mr. Harding a memorable presence—kind, good, loving, but still so full of human foibles. The effect is incredibly poignant. I promise you will not soon forget the humble Mr. Harding.


4 thoughts on “Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon: The Barchester Chronicles (1982)

  1. Loved reading about this cast, this does sound better than I thought.. I fell into that misconception you mentioned when it was shown on TV. And just spotted your Henry VIII post. So off to read that… I may be here for some time!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful comedy of manners with a marvelous cast. I forgot Mr. Pleasance had an actress daughter, will look for this one to see her as well.

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