They don't make TV series like this one anymore. No, literally, they don't. Affairs of the Heart, the first series of which has just been released on DVD from Acorn Media, is an anthology -- not just a different story every week but different characters, too. True, these seven one-hour episodes -- produced for British TV in 1974 and aired on American TV in the early 1980s -- are connected via their source material, the fiction of Henry James, but it's hard to imagine anything like this being produced today.
I'm not sure, either, now that we're used to big, sprawling epic adaptations of novels, whether a one-hour distillation of an entire novel would be welcomed by viewers. Indeed, these are a bit of a mixed bag: some work better than others. Episode one, "Catherine," is Washington Square boiled down to its essence, and it's one of the best of the seven on offer. Here, Catherine Sloper (Lynn Farleigh), a plain woman -- TV-plain, that is, not real-life plain -- isn't sure what to make of the advances of suave and handsome Morris Townsend (Ian Ogilvy). Is he a fortune hunter after the wealthy woman's money, or are his affections genuine? Is she really a dull and ugly woman, or is it merely that her father (Bernard Hepton) has browbeaten her into a mousehood that merely awaits some loving attention for her to blossom out of? It's a while before we're sure what to believe, and oh! that ending. Nicely done.
The other highlight is episode four, "Grace," based on the short story "Covering End," in which Jeremy Brett -- who famously took on the role of Sherlock Holmes in Granda TV's brilliant 1980s series -- and The Avengers' Diana Rigg (with an American accent) square off. He's a politician who's on the verge of making a major choice about how his career will turn; she's wealthy young widow with some radical ideas about what's worth sacrificing for what. They're electric together.
I quite like episode six, "Flora," too. Based on the story "Glasses," it features Patricia Routledge -- well-known to PBS viewers as Hyacinth Bucket and Heddy Wainthropp -- as the aunt of the beautiful Flora Saunt (Gayle Hunnicutt) and the keeper of Flora's "dreadful" secret. This one is a nicely humorous sendup of Victorian propriety.
Other episodes are based on The Wings of the Dove, The Aspern Papers and other James fiction, but they never quite spark to life like the others do, and are probably best left in the '70s. With no extra material in the set to deepen our appreciation of these little slices of drawing-room drama, these two DVDs are best left to serious fans of British costume TV, and them alone.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com