Acorn Media: A Good Reason for
Anglophiles to Rejoice...
A little over a year ago, after seeing Steven Soderbergh's
Traffic*, I purchased a copy
of the newly minted DVD of Traffik*
the original British mini-series on which the film was based.
The series was neatly packaged and well transferred for what was
then an eleven-year old British television product.
I had become used to viewing British television productions via
oddly time-compressed PAL to NTSC conversions, going back to
productions like I, Claudius,
the Derek Jacobi mini-series from the 1970s.
At the time I viewed Traffik*,
I made a mental note of the publisher, Acorn Media. I'd never heard
of them, but didn't have the time to research them further.
Last week I picked up two additional British television
mini-series; 1979's Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Spy* and the 1982 production
Smiley's People*. While I had
seen portions of both at the time that they were originally
broadcast, I felt neglectful at having missed in their entirety,
what have generally become considered as two of Sir Alec Guinness'
best later performances.
But it was not until I began to remove the shrink-wrap from
Tinker Tailor* to examine the
packaging, which is similar to that used for Fox's
24* and the
X-Files series, that I noted
the same logo which had adorned the packaging of
What and who was this company Acorn Media?
My initial thoughts were that it was probably an entity owned by
General Mills or one of the tobacco companies.
Acorn was founded in 1984 as Atlas Video by Peter Edwards, who at
the time was a communications consultant about to join NBC News in
Washington, D.C. The company began by distributing low budget,
It was seemingly in 1991 that Atlas took the step that would lead
them to where they are today. John Lorenz, moving over after a
fourteen-year career at PBS, joined them. The path now becomes more
In 1994 they licensed Derek Jacobi's Cadfael,
which was then airing on PBS' Mystery as a product of UK Broadcaster
Carlton, who would later own Technicolor Laboratories.
When they were unable to trademark Atlas Video, possibly because of
the German company Atlas, who had preceded them into the business,
the company changed its name to Acorn Media.
In 1995 through 1996 they began to import high end British
mini-series inclusive of The Far
Mapp & Lucia and
The Irish R.M., strengthening
their position in the industry and widening their circle of
licensors to Granada and Channel Four.
Their website was established in 1998 opening a portal via which
the public could finally locate and purchase the best that British
television had to offer.
All of this had, however, been published on VHS.
It was not until 1999, that their initial DVD offering,
Bernadette Peters in Concert
was released, along with re-masterings and re-releases of previous
product to DVD, inclusive of the BBC series Lord
Peter Wimsey starring Ian Carmichael and Granada's
Poirot series starring David
Suchet as the famous detective.
All of this had passed beneath my radar. Until in the summer of
2001 they released the original six hour mini-series
In June of 2002 Acorn released a landmark digitally re-mastered DVD
series of the classic Brideshead
Revisited*. This eleven part series (all 660 minutes) was
one of the finest ever to appear on television - anywhere. A quick
read of the cast should tell the tale: Jeremy Irons, Anthony
Andrews, Diana Quick, Sir John Gielgud, Claire Bloom and Sir
Laurence Olivier in a performance which earned him an Emmy.
Brideshead* is another
wonderful example of that breed of English production which has the
perfume of Connolly hides and Wilton carpet all over it. And this is
a good thing.
If you've seen what 16mm documentary footage can look like in an
out of control situation like Monterey
Pop* which I mentioned in my last piece,
Brideshead Revisited* is the
exact opposite side of that same 16mm coin.
When used for a television production, meaning that there is no
intent to enlarge it to huge cinema dimensions, and when in the
hands of a fine cinematographer, 16mm can provide images of
astounding beauty and brilliance. Transferred here, "grainus
might well be a poster child for quality 16mm production.
The transfer which hit our shores was derived from a 625 line / 25
frame digital component PAL version which has been meticulously
converted to NTSC format. No longer do we have to live with missing
frames. The film element used for this transfer was the same used
for the original transmission. There is very minor damage to the
element, which can be seen as an occasional light scratch at the
beginning of a reel. Otherwise, the transfer and the resultant set
of discs are magnificent.
I'll borrow from the notes by director Charles Sturridge to be
found in the Companion Guide packaged with the set to give those of
you unfamiliar with the project a sense of its size, importance and
the travails involved in its production.
"The Story of the making of Brideshead Revisited is in some
ways more complex than the plot of the book itself, though I suspect
that the final film could not have been arrived at by any other
route, a layer of crisis, like an avenging angel, hovered over and
protected the filmmaking process. Because managerial concerns were
always focused on the seemingly insuperable problems of production
logistic, nobody ever had time to ask what we were actually doing on
the set, and we were left to get on with it.
Shooting for a six-hour adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel started
in the summer of 1979 under the direction of Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
The first location was the island of Gozo, which was standing in for
North Africa, the scene of Sebastian's final days, and for South
America, where Charles travels in search of inspiration. Shortly
after the production returned to England, a technician's strike shut
down all Independent Television (ITV)... production in Britain. It
was four months before the strike was ended.... By then, Michael
Lindsay-Hogg was expected on another project to which he had
previously committed himself.
"[A]fter the strike ended, I received a phone call asking me
if I would look at the rushes of the footage that had been shot. The
loss of the director had not yet been made public and, as I was then
only 28 and a relatively junior director at Granada, this was an
unusual request. I flew to Manchester and met with Producer Derek
Granger. We discussed at length what I had seen and Production
Manager Craig McNeil joined us and asked how quickly I thought the
filming could be restarted. I had no idea, but felt three weeks was
a minimum. "We think it has to be nine days," he replied, "if
the production is to survive." That night Derek offered me the
job. I took a deep and private breath and accepted.
"There was one major aid to rapidly restarting the most
expensive production ever mounted by ITV, named that Castle Howard,
in some ways the leading character of the story, was available. So
much of the film was set in and around this extraordinary building
that we could work there for week, months even, while we sorted out
the rest of the schedule. This was to prove a life-saving anchor.
"Another problem was that there was no possibility of
completing the film within the existing contracts of the principle
actors; each one would have to be re-negotiated. I set about meeting
them one by one to convince them that I was capable of taking on the
production. I did not know any of them except Diana Quick, and I
talked as fast and clearly as I could. Finally, everybody signed,
with one proviso. Jeremy Irons insisted that he be allowed to
audition for another film project, The French Lieutenant's Woman,
and if he were cast, that he be allowed time away from Brideshead to
make that film. As there was no alternative, except recasting him,
this condition was allowed.
"Two other facts propelled the remaining days of preparation.
Sir Laurence Olivier became unexpectedly available to play Lord
Marchmain provided we could shoot his scenes immediately. My final "test"
was to meet him and convince him to play the part. The moment he
agreed, however, he wanted to read the script, as he was aware that
he would have a great deal of dialogue and wanted to start learning
it. But, unfortunately, this dialogue did not exist.
"At our first meeting, Olivier and I had discussed how to
address each other. I said I would call him "Sir" and he
could call me what he liked. On my first day of shooting, Olivier
sent me a telegram: "Good luck Charley Boy. Looking forward to
joining you in my humble in fact almost undiscernable [sic] way.
"In October 1981, the series debuted on British television.
The title Brideshead was by now synonymous with disaster, delay,
expense and, by inference, indulgence, but the finished product was
not at all like anyone had expected and the reaction was
extraordinary. I believe that the final film has an integrity and a
logic and a confidence that can only be attributed to the quality of
the material that it is drawn from the writing of Evelyn Waugh. One
might imagine that a dead author is easier to manage than a living
one, however, there can be few authors whose commanding presence was
more absolute that Waugh's on the set of Brideshead. It was his
precision and discipline that gave us as filmmakers the confidence
to work so freely."
Charles Sturridge London, February 2002
Sturridge recently noted to Susan King of the LA
Times, that one of the most extraordinary things about
his Brideshead experience was "to
make a film about the complexity of a group for relationships over a
period of time over such a long period. As a cast and crew we spent
nearly two years together, which is unusual for a film. It is more
like a theater company."
Brideshead* was nominated for
eleven Emmys in 1982, and won for the performance of Sir Laurence.
In many ways this indefatigably British television product can lay
claim to being the Citizen Kane
of television dramas. Superb in all respects, it was virtually
handcrafted by a first time director of 28. Its quality has not been
diminished by time. If you have not experienced this film I highly
recommend it as required viewing.
There is quite a disparity price-wise on Brideshead.
It can be had on DVD Planet for $59, and on Deep Discount for a
paltry $48: absolutely worth the price of admission. It works out to
seven cents per minute.
In similar fashion the new production of Nicholas
Nickleby can be had from DVD Planet for $22, or if you
prefer, from Deep Discount at $18.
Last fall Acorn released the two mini-series which have led me to
both investigate their being and offer this survey of their product:
John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,
Spy*, followed by Smiley's
People*. This brings to seven the newly available Alec
Guinness productions available to us on DVD. These two feature a
much more mature Sir Alec than his Ealing comedies as offered via
Anchor Bay. It's interesting to watch his style of acting - almost
more re-acting to others and his surroundings than "acting."
Here is an Alec Guinness who becomes George Smiley rather than
taking on a role. In certain ways there are actors who never seem to
step out of themselves. I find this disturbing. I'm never fully
embraced by the film, but rather, always feeling as if whatever
modern "star" is acting, but never fully becoming the
Take a look at Claude Rains' performance in Lawrence
of Arabia, and the way that he "re-acts." He is
Guinness does precisely the same thing, and we see it all too
Interestingly enough, it appears that Tinker,
Tailor* and Smiley's People*
are available only direct from Acorn at a price of $69.95 per title.
More recently, last October, in conjunction with its release on
Masterpiece Theatre, Acorn offered The
Forsyte Saga, with an additional twenty minutes of
material not in the U.S. broadcast. This all-new 2002 production
arrives as an anamorphic widescreen release.
Other titles of interest for Anglophiles, some of which are yet to
be released and some of which I have not seen include
The Pallisers, a 26 episode
BBC series; Nicholas Nickleby
starring Charles Dance and James D'Arcy; 5 offerings of the
Lord Peter Wimsey series;
Sex, Chips and Rock n' Roll;
Coming Home stars Peter
O'Toole and Joanna Lumley in an adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher's
novel about wartime England; The First
Churchills, which inaugurated Masterpiece Theatre;
The Mayor of Casterbridge with
Alan Bates and Anna Massey, in the Thomas Hardy tale about a man who
sells his wife at a country fair; and finally (with no set release
date) Ken Russell's Lady Chatterley.
Anything directed by Ken Russell making its way to DVD is a cause of
One sci-fi series being offered is LEXX,
a black comedy about a trio of misfits who roam a parallel universe
in a giant bio-engineered insect. I've never heard of this one,
which has apparently been called "Star Trek's evil twin"
February 25 will bring the release of Armistead Maupin's
Tales of the City, a three DVD
Coming in March from Acorn is Foyle's
War (a four part series) starring Michael Kitchen, after
its February broadcast on PBS, and again with additional footage not
seen on U.S. television.
In April a four volume boxed set of Midsomer
Murders, based on the novels by Caroline Graham.
I'm pleased to see Acorn Media join the DVD fold. They are a class
act and I look forward to their future releases. You can request one
of their catalogs via their website:
Before we move on to a totally different subject, and as a
semi-final aside, I would suggest the viewing of Charles Sturridge's
Longitude* with Michael Gambon
and Jeremy Irons.
New from Paramount
On a different front (but with a connection), I took a look at a
couple of recent/new releases from Paramount.
Ridley Scott's 1988 production, The
Duellists* is a strange and strangely beautiful film
concerning two Napoleonic era military officers, beautifully played
by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, and their long-running, but
one-sided feud. The film co-stars Diana Quick, who plays Julia Flyte
As photographed by Frank Tidy, The
Duellists* is not only Scott's first film, but the first
of many in which he would successfully establish worlds and periods
not our own, and make them totally believable.
Scott's work, more than any other filmmaker that comes to mind,
effortlessly moves from Napoleonic Europe, to future worlds in outer
space and the evils which lurk there, to a future city on earth,
literally teeming and alive and again very real and then back again
to the time of the Roman legions with consummate skill and daring.
If there is anyone out there who is not aware of Ridley Scott's
work, and I cannot image this, run - do not walk - to the DVD
purveyor nearest you and learn first hand about the quality of his
Another Paramount release, concerning an earlier period in history
is Trevor Nunn's 1986 Lady Jane*.
The transfer of this film, which was photographed by Douglas
Slocombe may well have the richest and blackest blacks that I've
ever seen on home video. This film has been beautifully transferred
and ported to DVD. This was to be Mr. Slocombe's second to last film
(he retired after Indiana Jones and the
Last Crusade) as director of photography and his
curriculum vitae reads like a "who's who" of the classics
of the British cinema. I invite you to check out his work, which
ranges from early three-strip Technicolor to black and white Ealing
comedies to The Lion in Winter*,
The Music Lovers and
Raiders of the Lost Ark at
* Designates a film worthy of
purchase on DVD.
Don't forget - you can
HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the
HTF's Ron Epstein for the
picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.