7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 22



Hooked by the Rostov Saga

Clive Gammon

Not being of the War and Peace generation, that is to say of the age-group which passed, away the long hours of airraid alerts sitting in Anderson shelters slowly assimilating the great novel (not only good for the mind but, in 1941, patriotic as well), I must now confess myself one of another group, numbered doubtless in millions, whose reaction to the title is a guilty twitch and an insincere resolution to get down to reading it this winter. I couldn't help being more of a 'William' fan at that time, could I? And there's never been as much time since.

That's a situation that is clearly going to change, though. I haven't walked up to Smiths in the lunch-hour lately, but I'd be surprised if they weren't already jamming the Alistair Macleans and Georgette Heyers into a corner to make room for a shipping order of paperbacks of War and Peace, not counting the do-it-yourself, easy-to-read introduction currently being advertised. And I suspect further that I will be an eager customer myself for, with two episodes down and eighteen to go, the new BBC dramatisation of the novel is already a clear winner.

I didn't w:int to be hooked for the ne'zt five months or so, heaven knows, and to frank I didn't expect to be. The Anodyne Factor, if I may so call it, which is such an important compulsion to view in longrunning dramatisations, seemed in prospect to be lacking.

The period for a start. Costumes overwhelming character. Applegreen gowns and brocaded chairs, I noted grimly at the beginning of the first episode, and some fellow in a high collar and spectacles who looked like my idea of Schubert. Only the homely features of Rupert Davies reassured me and kept the set switched on in spite of my low boredom threshold hiving been crossed so early.

Period is fine but it has to be the right period for the true anodyne effect, the tranquillising, week-after-week balm of, let's say, The Forsyte Saga. Old-fashioned but not too old-fashioned, if you see what I mean. Outside one's own period but not too far outside it. I found I could suffer infinite banality in the Dr Finlay series for the sake of those plus-fours, those short haircuts, those nurses that looked like nurses. The Dr Finlay period, in fact, is just about pushing the limit in proximity. At the other end, 1860 or so seems to be the mark, making The Moonstone and Tom Brown's Schooldays OK, but not Emma.

I'm not being precious. For some odd reason, for myself and for many other people that I've raised the subject with, this is a valid factor. A dramatisation has to be bad to throw away the advantage of being set in this time range. Conversely, out of it, it has to be very good to offset the disadvantage. Thus, for me recently, Henry VIII made it, Elizabeth didn't.

Perhaps, as I've hinted, this is a mere distrust of spectacle and there was plenty of that in the start of War and Peace — not the large-scale spectacle which we are promised later but rich interiors and rich costume. Like Mafiosi in The Godfather, counts and princesses lined up to 'pay respect' to the dying Count Bezuhov. There was a huge set-piece of a dinnerparty and for a Tolstoyan ignoramus, like me there was severe difficulty in sorting everyone out.

My initial qualms were also reinforced by the flat and lifeless dialogue of the adaptation — on the form of the early episodes the series is going to need all the spectacle it can get if the lines are going to go on sounding as if they'd, come straight out of The Archers. " Uh . . . I thought they'd never go," says Countess Rostov as she relaxes with the Count. I don't think she actually put her feet up on one of those brocaded sofas but that's the impression she left in my mind.

Once I'd realised how important Pierre was going to be, though, the story took light, especially amongst •the funereal maroons (on my set at least) of the deathchamber and the plottings of the wicked prince to destroy the letter which made Pierre a legitimate heir. It is much too early in the day yet (and let me stress once again my non-acquaintance with the novel) to judge whether character and the development of character will come to dominate the serialisation, but the strength of the narrative is already plainly there. Or, to put it more simply, I want to know what happens about that letter.

Plainly too, Anthony Hopkins's playing of Pierre is going to be powerful and rewarding. As the other main characters mesh in, I am going to be hard put to it not to use the expression 'rich tapestry' when I come to write about War and Peace again.

Not having seen any previews I am exercised to imagine what they will do with the Battle of Borodino, an event which it is hard to visualise on the small screen. Meantime the martial element is well catered for by the Tsarist national hymn, God the Omnipotent' being thundered out with the titles by the band of the Welsh Guards, music the sound of which for weeks to come will have me hitching my chair up eagerly to the box.