Miniseries `Middlemarch': Banner Event from BBC

Article excerpt

TO MANY, George Eliot's "Middlemarch" is the greatest novel in English - a searching, 19th-century epic of psychology and place that locates in one English village the spectrum of fear, vanity, beneficence and feeling.

Enter the BBC, whose track record in literary adaptations includes healthy doses of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, and even, in 1968, a previous go at "Middlemarch."

But its 1994 "Middlemarch," budgeted at $9.7 million and beginning its six-part American run Sunday (9 p.m. on Channel 9), is something else altogether.

A putative costume drama, it is concerned with characters, not clothes; as homage to Eliot's abiding moralism, it rings truer than ever today.

As a banner event from a broadcaster putting its best face, and resources, forward, "Middlemarch" also is an assertive gesture from a BBC whose own future - to be or not to be more commercial - is more uncertain than ever.

The miniseries was a hit in Britain, capturing the public imagination in a way not seen since Granada TV aired "The Jewel in the Crown" a decade ago.

"I thought it was going to be a BBC cultural minority piece," said Louis Marks, its producer. Instead, he found the show "breaking out of the culture ghetto, the chattering ghetto. Bingo clubs would close down at 8:30 so everyone could see it."

More than seven million people - one-eighth of the populace - watched each of its six episodes, said Marks. More than 105,000 paperback copies of the novel have sold since the show began airing, he said.

The Lincolnshire town of Stamford, where most of the series was shot over 23 weeks last year, has become a tourist draw, with the local museum displaying "Middlemarch" props alongside real antiques.

"Middlemarch," in other words, isn't just TV. And it is not just the BBC, since it was co-produced with Boston's WGBH-TV.

" `Middlemarch' is England," said Marks, whose BBC credits include the 1985 TV version of Eliot's 1861 "Silas Marner" that starred Ben Kingsley.

"Eliot has such an accurate, authentic eye of England," he said. "It's a recognizable England - the idealism and ambition of young people and the grinding small-mindedness of provincial life, the petty-minded prejudice and narrowness. …