PBS-TV's next "Masterpiece Theatre" broadcast, "Lucky Jim," is a winsomely charming comedy, likeable for a number of solid reasons. Chief among them is the story, based on a book by Kingsley Amis; the two main characters, played by Stephen Tompkinson and Keeley Hawes; and the nostalgic 1950s soundtrack.
Amis created quite a stir in British literary circles when "Lucky Jim" was published in 1954. First called an angry young man, Amis quickly established himself instead as a master of satire, malcontented rather than irate. His target was the intellectual milieu and those who wallowed in it, and the eponymous hero of "Lucky Jim" was something new: a working-class man, well-educated but unapologetically middlebrow.
The story, set in 1950 at an out-of-the-way British university that is "neither Oxford nor Cambridge," centers on Jim Dixon, freshly educated following wartime service and new to the profession of teaching. His nemesis is the head of his department, Neddy Welch, a pompous history professor given to staging madrigal performances and literary readings at his rundown country manse. Two women trap Dixon between a rock and a hard place: Christine is the stuff that dreams are made of, and Margaret is the stuff of nightmares. Christine, however, is keeping company with Welch's feckless son, an egotistical ass of an artist (complete with signature beret), while Margaret, a plain creature who resolutely refuses to acknowledge her lack of appeal, believes that the way to win Dixon's heart is by threatening suicide.
To please Welch, who holds the key to his teaching career, Dixon agrees to deliver his college's major public lecture on the topic of "Merrie England," but he swigs a bit deeply on his pocket flask as he tries to settle his nerves and offers up a peroration that leaves his audience either amused or stunned or both depending on their level of hypocrisy.
Stephen Tompkinson plays Dixon with a touch of Stan Laurel and a dash of Cary Grant for an altogether refreshing picture of befuddled and indignant certainty. As Christine, Keeley Hawes is a pre-Raphaelite beauty of the first magnitude, innocence and virtue compromised only by a mere trace of worldly wit. Neither is nearly as well known here as they are in the U.K. The rest of the cast more than holds its own: Robert Hardy pontificates outrageously well as Professor Welch, Helen McCrory manipulates and fawns expertly as Margaret, and Stephen Mangan plays Welch's artist son so smugly you'll want to smack him.
Complementing the top-notch story and acting in "Lucky Jim," along with the production's sensuously verdant cinematography, is a score that will transport viewers back to the tag end of the big-band era, ripe with mellow horns and strings and even a boy-singer with just the right tentative warble for the not-Oxford, not-Cambridge setting.
With an unsteady first season underway in its new Monday-night time slot, "Masterpiece Theatre" claws its way back to the top with "Lucky Jim," a production that will delight series fans and perhaps even win converts.
"Lucky Jim" airs Monday, Feb. 25, at 9 p.m. on PBS TV.
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