BBC 'Cambridge Spies,' PBS 'Dr. Zhivago'

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Oct. 24, 2003 at 4:02 PM   |   0 comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- From British TV this and next weekend come the U.S. premieres of two sweeping historical dramas, both excellent, that have in common the it-seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time explanation for communism and its sympathizers.

"Cambridge Spies," a five-part weekly miniseries starting Oct. 25 on BBC America, traces the long careers of Britain's notorious quartet of traitors - Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean - beginning with their idealistic days at Cambridge's Trinity College in the early '30s, when they were first recruited as Soviet agents.

"Dr. Zhivago," a two-part, four-hour version of Boris Pasternak's novel that begins Nov. 2 on PBS, is of course primarily a hauntingly sad and romantic love story ... but one set against the senseless violence of the Russian Revolution.

But just as "Cambridge Spies" makes clear that during the '30s it seemed that the only people fighting fascism were communists, "Dr. Zhivago" points out the good intentions that paved that particular road to hell.

As the broken revolutionary Strelnikov says bitterly towards the end, "I was going to make innocence and virtue compulsory."

"Everybody knows about the collapse of communism and that it was all no good," screenwriter Andrew Davies said about his adaptation of "Zhivago" at the PBS news conference in Hollywood. "Which makes one wonder, well, why the hell did anybody think it was a good idea?"

"The lives of ordinary Russians were so appalling under the Czars," Davies continued, "and I thought it was quite a good idea to remind people of the degree of idealism that went into the revolution before things all went wrong."

"Cambridge Spies" begins in 1934, a few years after "Dr. Zhivago" ends. At a time when Oswald Mosley and his British brownshirts were speaking admiringly of "Herr Hitler" and considered relatively respectable, communism seemed a reasonably attractive alternative to idealistic anti-fascists.

Actors being actors, there are some who still don't find it all that unattractive.

"That's debatable," said Samuel West, who plays Anthony Blunt, when a questioner at the BBC America news conference in Hollywood pointed out that Stalin murdered even more people than Hitler did.

"But when they began their allegiance they knew nothing of Stalin's excesses," he said of the British spies.

Well, that's the BBC for you. But as West pointed out, "the important thing as actors is that we see things from their point of view. It is not up to us to condemn what they did.

"Although, since we made the series actually," he added, "there has been a great explosion of youthful campaigning ... mostly against the war in Iraq. So perhaps we are touching some sort of pulse.

"Everybody goes to University wanting to change the world," West continued. "These guys actually did."

Yes indeed. Kim Philby, the most successful of the four - and unlike the others a rakish and extremely active heterosexual - betrayed British agents to the KGB and told them that British intelligence had broken the Nazis' "Enigma" code.

Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt sent Foreign Office documents about Allied strategy to the Russians during World War II. And the Soviet Union tested atomic bombs earlier than the United States expected because Donald Maclean, who worked on the Manhattan Project, had passed on information.

And yet at least during the early episodes, these treasonous Musketeers are extremely sympathetic, forced to assume the personae of anti-Semitic fascist twits for the greater good. Certainly the spies are, as Peter Moffat, who wrote the script, put it, "amazingly bright, funny, glamorous people."

The flamboyanatly gay Guy Burgess infiltrated the BBC - imagine that! - with a suggestion for a show called "Auntie's Agony." ("I'd simply love to produce a program about people with problems," he deadpans.)

Burgess is depicted in the series swanning around Cambridge describing the place to Kim Philby as "permanently February 19th. Look at that," he adds acidly of a passerby. "February 19th, in a face."

As it happens, there are intertwined elements to the relationships of the actors as well as their characters.

Tom Hollander, who plays Burgess, researched his role by asking Samuel West questions; the son of actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West, Samuel, who is a Socialist, grew up reading a Workers Revolutionary Party paper published by his parents' colleagues Corin and Vanessa Redgrave.

Because Blunt worked for the late Queen Mother, West asked his own mother for her take on their relationship; Prunella Scales played the Queen in "Single Spies," Alan Bennett's play about Blunt and his circle.

West recently directed Rupert Penry-Jones, who plays Donald Maclean, in an Old Vic production of "Les Liasons Dangereuses." Toby Stephens, who stars as the glamorous Kim Philby, is the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. His wife, Anna-Louise Plowman, plays Maclean's wife Melinda, who eventually left Maclean for Philby.

Back to "Dr. Zhivago," which most people remember from the 1965 David Lean film rather than the 1957 novel - for which Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was forced by the Soviets to refuse. (His work, in fact, was banned in the U.S.S.R. for decades.)

The original film is so iconic that if you've seen it, it's impossible to think of "Dr. Zhivago" without that famous "Lara's Theme" music running through your head. (The new "Zhivago" substitutes an eerie melody that is less hummable but closer to the melancholy truth of the story.)

And this PBS version really is far better than the visually spectacular but, frankly, rather uninvolving '60s film.

Keira Knightley, the "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Pirates of the Carribbean" star, was not quite 17 when she began playing Lara, who ages from 16 to 32 during the saga.

"Certainly it was intimidating stepping into an icon's shoes," Knightley said at the PBS news conference. "But it is a sad fact that nobody of my generation would go into Blockbuster and take out the David Lean movie.

"My dad fancied Julie Christie," Knightley added, "so when he heard I'd got the part, he thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever. I decided that I wouldn't watch the film, just in case I did anything remotely similar to Julie Christie. But I have read the book, about three times."

The PBS "Zhivago" may lack impressive crowd scenes and panoramic shots of trains crossing snowy steppes, but it also lacks (thankfully) the miscast Omar Sharif. And the absence of Lean's grandly epic vision is more than made up for in Davies's script by the more depiction of the characters and their relationships.

This new version has fine performances by Hans Matheson as Zhivago, Knightley as Lara - who although the camera loves her face as much as Julie Christie's, is a far better actress - and Sam Neill as the snakily corrupt Komarovsky.

"Now for some reason, people readapt 'Nicholas Nickleby' every two years and no one seems to mind," Neill pointed out. "This has been a long time between drinks, quite honestly. 'Dr. Zhivago' is one of the great novels of the 20th-Century, hands-down, and what is surprising to me is that it hadn't been readapted prior to this."

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