Picks and Pans Review: Masterpiece Theatre: the Jewel in the Crown

updated 12/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 01:00AM

PBS (Sunday, Dec. 16, 9 p.m. ET)

Dig in for a long one. Once you start watching The Jewel in the Crown you may find yourself addicted. It is a habit that will last 14 weeks. Jewel, adapted from Paul Scott's Raj Quartet of novels about the last years of British rule in India, is thick and rich with plot and characters, as flavorful as tandoori chicken. A small sampling: Tim Pigott-Smith (as Ronald Merrick) is a bad guy so awfully evil that he makes the lizards in l/look like house pets. He has a thing for Susan Wooldridge (playing the wimpy Englishwoman Daphne Manners) but she has the hots for Art Malik (cast as English-educated Indian Hari Kumar). She's raped by a gang of ruffians, and Merrick tries to frame Hari for the crime and slaps him in prison. That's just the first two episodes. There's much, much more, including some fine performances by Dame Peggy Ashcroft as a retired missionary, Geraldine (Gandhi) James as a smart but stuffy British woman, Judy Parfitt as James' shrewish, drunken mom and Zohra Segal as the charming Lady Chatterjee. This list, too, goes on. There's so much happening that World War II becomes little more than a subplot; you hear talk of the Japanese in Burma, of Gandhi going in and out of jail, of India slowly gaining its freedom. Rather than dramatizing these world events, Jewel shows you their effect on its multitude of characters. This makes for a fascinating series. The acting, writing, production and photography are all first-rate; the settings are stunning. There are some minor weaknesses. For an American audience, at least, there is an occasional overdose of Brit twits, of people who seem to talk at length about very little indeed just so they can enjoy their own accents. You come to wonder not how they lost their empire but how they ever got it in the first place. And probably the most interesting and sympathetic plot line—about the imprisonment of Hari Kumar—is too soon lost in a void. Still Jewel keeps you coming back. It does a masterly job of making you care about its characters and what happens to them. That is what a mini-series is supposed to do, and Jewel does a spectacular job of it. It is this year's best fictional mini.

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