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To Serve Them All My Days: Complete collection

(BBC; US DVD: 13 May 2011; UK DVD: 10 May 2011)

This is a television adaptation from a bygone era; and I don’t mean the era between the two World Wars when what must, laughably, be called the action is set. It’s a dramatisation of a very minor work of 20th century literature that was only possible when the BBC was an all-consuming Goliath with unlimited budgets and no restrictions on its output. I for one am thankful it is a thing of the past.


This series has 13 (count them – 13!) episodes of almost an hour each. That was one per week for three months back in 1980 when it was first aired. It’s now presented in a box set comprising six discs.


The action veers sluggishly from the mildly diverting to the excruciatingly dull. It’s a reminder that when the BBC had almost unlimited spending power for adaptations and commissioned (the now hallowed) Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, et al) to adapt inconsequential material such as RF Delderfield’s novel the result was certainly not always the artful, lavish, riveting costume dramas that are their trademark. Alcoholic, chain-smoking schoolmasters coughing themselves slowly to their grave is not entertainment; but supposedly passed for such at one time.


There were only three television channels broadcasting in the UK when this was made, it must be remembered, two of which belonged to the BBC amounting to a virtual monopoly. So they had the market cornered in this sort of expensive, self-indulgent snoozefest.


There is a plot (of sorts) which amounts to bleak, unremitting misery most of the time – set in the dreary Bamfylde School in the South West of England. As a public school it’s the sort of institution that the middle and upper-middle classes send their sons to for huge amounts of money – and as some sort of punishment presumably, maybe for something that the poor blighters did in a past life. This is no Hogwarts, my friends!


The main character, David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine), known incongruously as ‘PJ’, arrives in 1918 suffering from shell-shock after three years in the trenches in France. Evidently the headmaster Algy Herries (Frank Middlemass) considered time spent as a history teacher at this tomb of a school would be the best thing to ‘cure’ PJ’s lingering shakes and nightmares. He still jumps at the slightest loud noise and the sight of boys struggling in a scrum on a boggy rugby field is enough to bring back the horrors of the Somme.


Clearly, the BBC was only able to shoot the exterior scenes (at the Milton Abbey School in Dorset) on wet days and during winter and spring vacations when the crew could use the grounds and buildings as it is always raining, grey, dull, and muddy – you can hear the actors’ shoes squelching on the wet ground – thus reinforcing the bleakness of the scholastic surroundings.


There is one hilarious scene when Beth (Belinda Lang) arrives at the school and is greeted by PJ. She is wearing a gauzy, summery drop-waist dress, light overcoat and sunhat – in what is clearly the middle of winter – it’s actually snowing! So when she gets out of the car she has a line of dialogue that has to reflect how inappropriately she is dressed.


However, it’s not meant to be a prison. Under the tutelage of some of the more kindly masters the offspring of the English bourgeoisie are meant to be thriving and having their eyes opened to issues of the day. PJ is branded a ‘Bolshie’ by some of his less enlightened colleagues, such as the caddish coward Carter (Neil Stacy) who has escaped service in the war thanks to his ‘dodgy knee’ playing him up. There is no need to worry though, because the jolly old alcoholic English teacher, Howarth (Alan McNaughton) becomes best friends with PJ and together they strive to bring some socialist reforms to the place.


Actually, no they don’t. That was wishful thinking on their and my part. Nothing really happens. It rains a lot and Duttine as PJ has precisely two expressions: shell-shocked and morose, and morose and slightly agitated. Also, a word to the wise – don’t become Mrs PJ whatever you do! His succession of wives has it even worse! If you are married to PJ, never get behind the wheel of a car – that’s all I’m saying.


All the interiors were shot in studios with built sets, all the exteriors on location. So, across hours and hours of television that amounts to millions of pounds worth of building, transportation, costume, sourcing props etc. That’s some carbon footprint and on more of a grand scale than a lot of feature films nowadays.


The DVD also reveals the production values as now suffering from that stilted quality of actors performing in the confines of a set and then in the expanse of an outdoor location with noise and bustle around them. This amounts to a conflict in filmic style. In addition the transfer of footage – from the clarity of studio-shot action, to the grainy, dull quality of the exterior film – again demonstrates how poorly this type of dramatisation ages.


All of this attention to detail and expense for what is basically a dated, dull, tiresome, tedious old drama by an author whose reputation is far from robust. Delderfield was an editor for a West Country newspaper (owned by his father) and reminisces about amateur dramatics, local council meetings, county court proceedings, and flower shows in his autobiography For My Own Amusement. Well, it must be for yours, because it’s certainly not for our amusement Mr Delderfield!


To Serve Them All My Days takes place over the two inter-war decades and feels like it was shot in real-time. It’s the sort of clunky narrative that includes an ‘event’ or a ‘twist’ in place of any real absorbing characterisation or meaning. Like some of the hapless (and frankly suicidal) staff and pupils of the school, watching this sucks you down into a morass of gloom that makes the onset of World War II at the very end of the story (of course it leaves off before any action takes place) something of a relief.


Don’t even think about what extras there might be on here. The ‘Special Features’ comprise some production photos and a few paragraphs of text. If you want a public school drama go out and rent Goodbye Mr Chips or The Browning Version. Only engage with this if you have a penchant for gloomy drama, worn at the edges like PJ’s tweed jackets.

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Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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