12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
PBS (Sun., Dec. 1, 9 p.m. ET)
I'm insulted sometimes when PBS thinks it has to introduce and explain its brainier shows to us dumb Americans. This time I admit that I needed help—and Alistair Cooke didn't give it. After watching his opening spiel (enjoying his accent, as always), I became utterly lost in episode one of this Dickens novel. What Alistair should have told me—and what I'll tell you now—is not to worry about following the plot; there isn't much. Bleak House is ostensibly about heirs to a will who live in limbo while the Court of Chancery sits on their case. But I couldn't figure out who left the money and who was fighting for it. Alistair didn't tell me. I bought the book, but it's 818 pages long. And you know we TV people don't read. So, I confess, I bought the Cliffs Notes. After perusing both I discovered that Dickens didn't let the details get in his way. Instead he spent page after wonderful page insulting lawyers and inventing characters more evil or odd than anything from Spielberg, Lucas, E.T. al. There's Krook (played by Bernard Hepton), a scuzzy junk dealer who buys but never sells; Smallweed (Charlie Drake), a greedy, grungy moneylender; Tulkinghorn (Peter Vaughan), a lawyer who "lives by trouble—he feeds it so it may feed him," and many more. Those are not the starring characters, just the fun ones. At the center of the story are Denholm Elliott as kindly heir John Jarndyce, Suzanne Burden as the all-too-good Esther and Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock, a cold woman with a hot secret. The connections among all these characters can be as obtuse as the plot. So, like Dickens, don't let the details get in your way. Just relax and enjoy eight weeks of great characters greatly portrayed, of Dickensian England brilliantly captured in all its mire, mirth and melodrama.