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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

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 Traffik*.

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, quality documentaries.

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 obvious.

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 Pavilions, Bramwell, 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 Traffik*.

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 intactus," Brideshead 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. Love, Larry."

"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 character.

Take a look at Claude Rains' performance in Lawrence of Arabia, and the way that he "re-acts." He is Dryden.

Guinness does precisely the same thing, and we see it all too seldom.

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 celebration.

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" by some.

February 25 will bring the release of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a three DVD set.

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 in Brideshead*.

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 work.

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

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK 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.

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