There grows in tropic Asia the durian fruit, which smells like rotten carrion but tastes mild and sweet. This duality is not confined to the natural world.
Indeed, Simply Media’s DVD release of the BBC’s 1967 Further Adventures of the Musketeers does, at first glance, stink, but by the end of the 16 episodes which mark the complete sweep of the series, I found myself somewhat endeared, if still creased with laughter for all the wrong reasons.
One cannot possibly judge the production values of a small-scale television series from the 1960s against those of a comparable outing by a major broadcaster today, but alarm bells of desperation sound the instant the copyright warning disappears upon loading the first of three (misnumbered) discs and is replaced by a caveat emptor about imperfections commensurate with the age and quality of the original material being evident.
It’s true, no attempt has been made to remaster this from the original footage and every slightly grainy shot, every muffled noise has been retained intact in the rush to get a comparatively minor series rendered and issued quickly and inexpensively.
The series, following on from the previous year’s successful adaptation of the first of Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers books, is prisoner to a complex plot wherein our heroes Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan start off divided, reunite, try to save the boy-king of France from his scheming mother and her eminence grise Cardinal Mazarin, then pop to England to have a brave go at saving Charles I, then come back to tie up some loose ends, all the while trying to find some way of dealing with Mordaunt de Winter, whose treacherous mother they’d seen off in Lille some time previously. Keeping up? Oh do come along.
However, if you’re hard of hearing and relying on the subtitles, you are, quite frankly, screwed. The subtitles would appear to have been typed up by an intern with earplugs. When you have snafus like “I, Athos, despaired” being turned into “I, Athos III” or “the king’s troops are encamped in Newcastle” appearing as “The king’s troops are in Camden, Newcastle”, then you know you can’t hope for anything like an accurate representation of the dialogue. The whole make-a-fast-buck feel of this, from the horrendously basic menus to the complete lack of even textual extras, makes one wonder how the distributors keep afloat.
And such dialogue it is too. Of course, this was a time for highly-strung period dramas and the Reithian stuffiness of the BBC’s ancient regime was lingering on – notwithstanding The Frost Report and Round the Horne – when it came to the classics.
At first I thought I would entitle this review “The perfect Christmas fare: A turkey stuffed with ham” but actually Alexander Baron’s scripts are quite heavily drawn from the heightened language of Dumas’s original, so one should not be so surprised at the outburst of faux-poetic chivalry and long speeches on the divine right of kings, delivered as if this were as self-evident as the sun rising and setting.
Performances vary but the central four give a fine account of themselves. Jeremy Young gives an intense and internally tortured Athos, John Woodvine a suitably raffish Aramis who wears his new-found priest’s robes with more than a hint of irony. Joss Ackland gives a remarkably nuanced (given the material) outing as d’Artagnan. Lethal Weapon fans will remember him as the horrendous South African ‘DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!’ guy, and will not be disappointed when he presages this with something approximating ‘We are the Cardinal’s ambassadors and as such may not be touched’. And of course Brian Blessed plays Brian Blessed beautifully in the guise of Porthos and, naturally, gets all the best lines.
There are some irredeemable clunkers of performances, principal among them Michael Gothard as Mordaunt de Winter, who boggles and moans his way through any number of permutations of “I shall make fast my vengeance for thee, my mother” reminding one of a high(er)-camp version of the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code. Louis Selwyn, playing the boy-king, swans around with a sort of vulnerable hauteur, giving ill-advised voice to thought in tones evoking a splicing of a young Hayley Mills with Queen Elizabeth’s address to the Empire on her 21st birthday. He must get it from his mother, played by Carole Potter, who doesn’t seem to know which she should fear more – the rabble or nuance.
Even William Dexter as Cardinal Mazarin – of all the supporting cast possibly the most competent – emerges from some scenes more overdone than a steak in a crematorium.
The fight scenes are enjoyable – sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes not. Point-of-view shots during sword-fights were harder when the camera was the size of a grown man, for instance, and a daring leap through a window is lessened when the whole wall wobbles, but this was public service television in the 1960s and compromises must be made.
However, I promised at the start not to judge this by today’s standards and actually, so long as you are in it for the nostalgia, so long as you do not need subtitles, so long as you are not taking it too seriously and so long as you like your period dramas light, camp and traditionally heroic; so long as you are not expecting 21st century attitudes to women and people from countries not your own and so long as you are prepared to sink into the series like a rich fondue – only taking what you want from the pot and realising it will be cloying later on – then you will not waste your money on what is an entertaining few hours’ television that did not waste its time smoothing the artistic edges.
Dir: Christopher Barry
Scr: Alexander Baron, after Alexandre Dumas
Prd: William Sterling
Cast: Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed, John Woodvine, Jeremy Young, William Dexter, Carole Potter, Louis Selwyn, Michael Gothard, David Garth, Wendy Williams, Jennifer Jayne
Running Time: 400 mins approx.
Further Adventures of the Musketeers is released by Simply Media on May 26, 2016