Albert Finney stars in Masterpiece Theatre’s My Uncle Silas, a dramatization of five stories by H. E. Bates. His performance of a lovable lecher and scoundrel (he is an incorrigible poacher) brings back memories of his first big screen success, Tom Jones. The revival of Finney’s film career in recent years has led to his effective portrayal of a lawyer in Erin Brockovich, but this new role doesn’t have an edge—the emphasis is on lovable. Finney is able to coast on his charm in this look at life in the English countryside near the turn of the 19th century.
The first story, entitled “The Wedding,” establishes Finney’s character as Silas, and his circumstances.He is a widower who is about to see his only son be wed and receives a nephew who will spend the summer with him.The nephew is brought by Silas’ relatives, a married sister and her husband, and a spinster sister.The episode begins with Silas narrowly escaping a warden who has observed him poaching trout from an estate stream.Silas deposits the fish with his housekeeper (played by Sue Johnston; she is a Maggie Smith look-alike with flaming red hair and a tart way about her) and then goes to meet his relatives and the nephew. Silas’ son, who comes across as a bit of a simpleton, has to be coaxed to the chapel. At the wedding reception Silas toasts the bride, saying she reminds him of his late wife.The warmth of the presentation just misses becoming mawkish.
The next story follows seamlessly and concerns a woman whose life has been changed since her husband embraced temperance.Silas becomes the agent of her liberation. And in the third episode, Silas again helps a woman find personal freedom just on the eve of her death.The fourth episode concerns a boxing match with a bully. The stories come full circle in the final one, which marks the end of summer and the departure of the nephew, when it is revealed that Silas and his housekeeper were once sweethearts.
The performances are very natural, although Janet Henfry as the prim Aunt Tibby flirts with caricature. Charlotte Rampling has the role of the woman who is about to die, and Annabelle Apsion plays the repressed wife in the second episode.Both deliver their roles with conviction.The period is nicely recreated, complete with steam train voyage, picturesque country views, and a grand estate.On several occasions, Finney’s grin veers towards a leer—shades of Tom Jones.A little more of that kind of spice would have been welcome.
– Larry Campbell