The Barchester Chronicles


I remember first watching the BBC production of The Barchester Chronicles when I was a child, and being utterly absorbed. Now it seems extraordinary that I should have been so interested in Trollope's world of Anglican Divines and their bizarre dramas. But for years I carried the memory of this series in my head, and I finally bought the DVD and watched it again.
And once again I was completely gone - drawn in to the breathtaking inconsequentiality of Trollope's impossibly genteel world, with its clergymen, academics, nouveau riche and winsome widows. And the production is beautiful - gorgeous scenery, wonderfully campy performances by all concerned, and lots of bonnets and crinolines. I was desperate to see each new episode, and had to ration myself to one a night in order to extend the sweetness of The Barchester Chronicles.
So what is it about? A group of Anglican priests in a mythical cathedral town in nineteenth century England, is what. Their little world is so intensely insular that even the smallest dramas take on immense importance. And what a fascinating little world it is. The hierarchy of the church and the associated titles is heaven to someone like me with slight obsessive-compulsive inclinations. It also offers a fascinating insight into gender and social roles in Victorian England, to the intricacies of the etiquette of the time, and to the rapid changes taking place in class and culture.
Alan Rickman plays the ultimate clerical bad-guy, the Bishop's evil assistant Mr. Slope. There are shades of Dickens to his character (possible? Not so sure on my literary history here - am thinking that Trollope was writing slightly after Dickens. Happy to have someone set me right on this), and Mr. Slope reminds me awfully of that other great literary slimebag Uriah Heep. Or perhaps that's just a BBC costume-drama syndrome, with players of literary anti-heros encouraged to ham it up outrageously in their roles. Certainly Alan Rickman camps it up with gusto, and his is the character that delighted me most as a child. I'm also a huge fan of Geraldine McEwan as the Bishop's interfering wife - especially since I have so recently watched her play E. F. Benson's legendary priestess of high-camp, Lucia. She is a marvellous actress, who manages to steal almost every scene she is in.
It is genteel, it is slow-paced and it is thoroughly gorgeous, and I fear that it has caused me to consider embarking on one of those painfully precious literary projects - reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. I will almost certainly become a Trollope bore.
The Barchester Chronicles is perfect viewing for your summer holiday, and the perfect antidote to all of those ghastly hi-tech action films that one is usually bombarded with at this time of year. Escape to a gentler - though not necessarily kinder - world.

2 comments:

P.M.Newton said...

Oh poor Mr Slope (I hear it was Slop, he added an "e") - they were all so awful to him for seeing the church as a way to seek advancement in society, weren't they!

If you've loved Barchester you should seek out The Pallisers - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075557/ also available on DVD and does to politics what Barchester did to the church.

Walter said...

Oh, thanks for the tip! I shall look out for it - going to the DVD shop today, in fact!

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