Wednesday February 27, 2013
Digging minis to the max
By ANN MARIE CHANDY and S. INDRAMALAR
Grand in scope, rich in entertainment value, the miniseries as ‘event television’ is ripe for a comeback.
THE first miniseries I ever watched was Roots, which was based on Alex Haley’s novel of the same name, about the slave trade in America in the 18th century.
Haley’s story focused on Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton), a young African boy who was captured by slave traders and shipped to America where he was then sold as a slave.
The series horrified me. It was the first time I had heard of the slave trade in America and watching how they were treated, or rather mistreated, was just shocking. It was heartbreaking. Young or old, men or women, these slaves were whipped and beaten for no valid reason (Kunta Kinte, for example, was beaten brutally for refusing to answer to his slave name of “Toby”). The women were raped and abused. It was a chilling account of human cruelty and suffering and I was glued to the TV set.
The story followed Kunta Kinte’s life – his capture, his attempts at escaping and his journey to adulthood – and carried on through the lives of his children, grandchildren and finally, his great-grandson who was the first free man of the family.
Roots became one of the most watched TV series at the time (with 100 million viewers tuning in nightly) and remains the third highest-rated US TV show of all time.
In the 1980s and 90s, miniseries were all the rage. They often comprised one grand story that was told, in detail, over a limited number of episodes (often six or 12).
Their stories usually spanned decades or centuries and the productions were huge, much bigger than any regular TV series and sometimes even movies.
Apart from Roots (which was actually made in 1977 but only aired on RTM in the early 1980s), there was North And South, a 1985 miniseries based on John Jakes’ American Civil War trilogy about the iron-making Hazards of Pennsylvania and the slave-owning Mains of South Carolina. The series aired in three parts, representing the trilogy: the second part (1986) was called Love And War and the final part (1994), Heaven And Hell. The saga spanned the periods before, during and immediately after the American Civil War.
The story focused on the friendship between Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) of South Carolina and George Hazard (James Read) of Pennsylvania, who meet while training at the West Point Military Academy and later find themselves on opposite sides in the war.
It was a story of friendship, romance, war; a mix of drama and melodrama; the perfect recipe for compelling TV (although I found the third part less interesting than the first two).
I found myself hooked on the genre: I watched Thorn Birds (1983), a romantic miniseries about the forbidden love between Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph de Bricassart, a young, good-looking priest; Anne Of Green Gables (1985), a series based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, about a precocious orphan girl; and The Jewel In The Crown, a British miniseries about the final days of the British Raj in India during World War II, based upon the novels by Paul Scott (I watched this with my mother, who loved it).
Oh, there was also Tenko, a short series about British, Australian and Dutch women who were captured by Japanese soldiers after the fall of Singapore in 1942. The story depicted the struggles of these women in concentration camps where they lived in appalling conditions.
The popularity of miniseries kind of dwindled in the 1990s and early 2000s – there were only a few to speak of such as the 1995 production of Pride And Prejudice starring the drool-worthy Colin Firth and Band Of Brothers (2001) with Homeland’s Damian Lewis.
These days, though, there seems to be a resurgence with series like The Pacific (2009), Mildred Pierce (2011), The Kennedys (2011) and Hatfields & McCoys (2012) earning accolades in addition to being popular. I have to admit that the lull in the 1990s and early 2000s must have affected my sensibilities as I find myself favouring episodic drama series over miniseries. But now is as good a time as any, I guess: I borrowed a copy of Mildred Pierce from a colleague many months ago and I hear it calling. – SI
A RECENT article on Jeremy Irons in Beautiful Creatures reminded me of one of my earliest television memories of the austere actor with that inimitable voice. Strangely, I’d forgotten all about the miniseries, until last week when Indra and I were discussing what to write about.
The series, Brideshead Revisited (which originally screened in Britain in 1981) must have come to our shores in the mid-1980s as I remember being in secondary school then. It is only a hazy memory for me now but when I Googled it, I learned that the series is ranked 10th on the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes compiled by the British Film Institute, and that Time has called it one of the 100 best TV shows of all time.
I was also amused to find it being compared to Downton Abbey quite a bit, and coming out tops to boot.
Based on the 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories Of Captain Charles Ryder, by British writer Evelyn Waugh, the miniseries (it’s called a series, but I believe it was a miniseries as there only ever was one season, and the story was told in full. The tale centred on Army captain Charles Ryder (Irons) who moves to a new Brigade Headquarters at Brideshead, once home to the Marchmain family.
The story is told in narration by Ryder and features the entire Marchmain family, including Sebastian Flyte (my favourite character, played Anthony Andrews). The cast reads like a veritable Who’s Who, with the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud appearing.
I remember being enamoured by the beautiful setting, the wealth and privilege of British aristocracy, being amused by how foppish and flamboyant the men were sometimes portrayed, being enthralled by the discussions on religion (the series had a central theme of the family’s devotion to Catholicism), the elegant language that was used.
It was a tale of innocence and experience and I remember being wholly mesmerised. I think I should buy the series and watch it again now that I’ve whetted my appetite with bite-sized nuggets from YouTube.
Other miniseries which come to mind are Roots, of course (I remember the whole family congregating to watch that one – it was like an event itself), and also Centennial, Twin Peaks and Angels In America.
I’m not sure if Battlestar Galactica and V qualify as miniseries, I believe they began as minis, and then spun off into fully fledged series. All very different in genre but they made for riveting viewing nonetheless.
As did Lace, a US miniseries based on a novel by Shirley Conran, which was albeit somewhat trashy and fluffy (the world may cringe to see me writing about Brideshead Revisited and Lace in the same article … *chuckle*).
The 1984 series traces the search by sex symbol Lili (Phoebe Cates) for her natural mother, who gave her up for adoption when she was born. Lili boils down her search to three likely candidates, best friends Pagan Trelawney (Brooke Adams), Judy Hale (Bess Armstrong) and Maxine Pascal (Arielle Dombasle). My cousin Shereen and I still quote a line from the miniseries, where the three best friends promise friendship “through sick and sin”.
The great thing about miniseries, I think, is that they offer closure. They don’t go on indefinitely (Indra, I’m referring to The Bold And The Beautiful here) and just rob you of your half your life.
Miniseries are carefully planned tales that span only about 13 episodes or so, are easy to digest, excite you for just about the right amount of time, leave you with thought-provoking ideas and lasting memories. Bring them back, I say! – AMC