Masterpiece Theater lightens up with "My Uncle Silas." 

English Escape

If you're in the mood for escapist television — and who isn't these days? — the least you can do is treat yourself to the very best, to something you can brag about the next morning.

Masterpiece Theatre's "My Uncle Silas" fills the bill with change to spare.

"My Uncle Silas" is hardly heavyweight, intellectual drama. That's just one of the things Masterpiece Theatre does so well. The companion strong-point of the venerable PBS-TV series is a sweet, nostalgic tale, larded with humor and pictures of the English countryside at its most beautiful.

Thus, with this gathering of tales first told by British author H.E. Bates ("Love for Lydia") in 1939, Masterpiece Theatre offers the right to brag without having to pay the price of thinking deeply about meaning and metaphor. Instead, you'll find yourself amused and, occasionally, moved.

Painless snobbery, it is. You can see where there'd be a market for that. And you get to enjoy it, to boot.

The vaunted British countryside is perpetually abloom in the full headiness of summer, every cottage is covered in vines, and the characters are bigger and broader than life in "My Uncle Silas." Nostalgia plays its part, too. When Bates wrote the book, he was looking back at his own boyhood in rural Northamptonshire in the peaceful days before World War I. The title character was based on his own eccentric uncle.

The major strength is the casting. Albert Finney plays Uncle Silas, the wily reprobate who takes in his 10-year-old great-nephew for the summer. Silas is the rascally rogue, the proper lecher, the canny scoundrel of an uncle we all wish we had had to shower attention on us when we were 10 — the equally outrageous male version of an Auntie Mame, but with a leer.

The role fits Albert Finney like a battered, comfortable glove. With five Oscar nominations to his credit, Finney, as an actor, has successfully mined every age of his life, from his salad-days portrayal of "Tom Jones" to his maturity as one half of the couple in PBS-TV's "A Rather English Marriage," or as Julia Robert's boss in "Erin Brockovich." As Uncle Silas, he makes a drunkard, a sinner and a lecher come off as delightfully lovable.

Joe Prospero plays his young great-nephew with winning enthusiasm. Charlotte Rampling ("Great Expectations") is an amorous spinster in one of the show's five vignettes, and Sue Johnston ("Brassed Off") continues throughout as Silas' feisty housekeeper, Mrs. Betts. They, along with the rest of the cast, transport the audience effortlessly back in time and space.

(For all his deftness in the role of Silas, Finney was an emergency replacement. Oliver Reed was set for the part, but he died in 1999 during the filming of "Gladiator.")

In the opening scene, as young Edward is being escorted to meet Silas by his great-aunts, he hears them discussing their brother in clucking disapproval. Immediately, he begins to suspect he will have a rollicking summer.

He does. And you will, too.


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