Judge Christopher Kulik looked for glittering prizes in his Lucky Charms but just kept finding more gritty marshmallows.
"One of the most dazzlingly articulate and beautifully performed productions ever made for television!"—The New York Times
I wish I could champion this miniseries as much as the aforementioned Times, but it would be too much to ask. That's not to say The Glittering Prizes, a fondly remembered BBC miniseries from the 1970s, doesn't have its rewards. I was enthralled with about 2/3 of it…until it started to drift away from its primary characters and go off on unnecessary tangents. Still, I didn't think it was a waste of time, considering the fact it demands almost eight hours from the viewer.
Based on the semi-autobiographical memoir by Frederic Raphael (Oscar-winner writer for Darling), the story begins in 1953. Cambridge freshman Adam Morris (Tom Conti, Shirley Valentine) is a closeted Jew who boldly enters the fabric of university life on his own. He becomes good friends with his Christian roommate who, alas, is quickly dying of cancer and meets his soon-to-be-wife Barbara (Barbara Kellerman, Satan's Slave). Many of Adam's fellow students are also scrutinized in some detail, including one girl who gets pregnant and gets married to another man, with the expected repercussions.
Each part six-episode miniseries focuses on one specific year, as each of these characters grow (sort of) up until 1976. Even though The Glittering Prizes delves into soap opera, it also sprinkles in sexism, racism, anti-Semitism (among other things), and how these affect the characters. There is so much on the series' plate, however, that it ends up over-nourishing itself and becoming bloated. What's more disappointing is that it only partially recovers, and it misses a golden opportunity to emotionally soar at its dénouement.
In summary, there were four and a half great episodes out of the total six. In Episode 1, we get to know Adam inside and out, his eccentricities, mannerisms, etc., and he becomes a fully fleshed out individual. So far, so good. In Episode 2, we leave Adam and are awkwardly introduced to three couples. (I say awkwardly because it took me two viewings just to re-acquaint myself with all of these characters). Then, in Episodes 3 & 4 we revisit everyone in the 1960s as they have grown, have children and still have unregistered feelings waiting to be opened. The fourth episode ends with a bang—literally—and suddenly I got thrust into can't-wait-to-see-what-happens-next mode.
Then a huge blow came with Episode 5 in which we are introduced to almost entirely brand new characters! I can see how Raphael was leaning towards unconventionality, but it simply didn't work, and soon The Glittering Prizes begins to drag. Adam and his wife Barbara return in the final episode, which is more than welcome, and things seem to be back on course. What pisses me off is the constant hinting at closure being brought to two secondary characters from Cambridge…and it never happens. In the end, I just wasn't completely satisfied; if only that certain closure had come about, as it would have made up for the unnecessary excursions in Episode 5.
It's such a shame too, because the acting across the board is first-rate. I've always considered Tom Conti an extremely underrated actor and he's immensely appealing to watch whenever he's onscreen. U.S. audiences have only really seen him in a few films, such as American Dreamer and Miracles, but he has a very tender, Hugh Grant quality to him which is simply irresistible. Barbara Kellerman also scores as Adam's wife (when we do see her), but the rest of the cast (most of them U.K. stage actors) deliver the goods.
Sadly, time has not been kind to The Glittering Prizes when it comes to the print. Like most British shows produced in the 1970s, the outdoor scenes sport gallons of grains and a host of other anomalies. The scenes filmed on the stage fare much better, with not-bad contrast and detail, but it still suffers. Dialogue is easily heard when it comes to the DD 1.0 mono track; optional English subtitles are also provided. The lackluster video/audio quality is somewhat redeemed by one solid bonus feature: an extremely rare, 30-minute interview with Raphael himself, as he returns to Cambridge and talks about how much of the novel is true and what inspired his writing.
While the court was greatly disappointed with how The Glittering
Prizes turned out, it finds the miniseries and BBC Video not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Writers and Places: All That Glittered"
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