Barchester Chronicles (1982)

Reviewed by Stephanie Vale

Based on the book by Anthony Trollope, The Barchester Chronicles, is a fascinating and satirical look at corruption in the Church of England, and the reformers who wish to make changes and end up getting more than they bargained for.


Reverend Septimus Harding (Donald Pleasence), a decent, gentle and caring man who values music and its relation to God above all else, is the clergyman in charge of Hirams Hospital. John Hiram, a rich and influential man, died decades before, leaving money for the forming and management of a mens hospital, intended for worn out old men to take refuge in the country and live their last days out in peace. Appointed by Bishop Grantly (Cyril Luckham) to his post almost 12 years ago, Rev. Harding is suddenly attacked in a lawsuit by reformers who claim that corruption and nepotism have invaded into the town of Barchester. They begin calling for reform and although the lawsuit is defeated at the end, Rev. Harding ends by honorably resigning from Hiram's Hospital, to live poorly and struggle on as a clergyman in Barchester.


Not too long after, a change in government calls for a change in church leadership: when a new prime minister is named just as Bishop Grantly passes away, Dr. Grantly (who had hoped to become the next bishop) is passed over for a new appointment: Bishop Proudie. Enter Alan Rickman (in an early role pulled off with resounding success), playing the fantastically flirtatious and social-climbing devious chaplin, Reverend Obadiah Slope. Slope is chaplin to shy, quiet, stammering Bishop Proudie, who is controlled by his wife, Mrs. Proudie (McEwan), in nearly everything he does. A few other characters thrown into the mix, including the beautiful and crippled Signora Madeline Neroni (Susan Hampshire) and her rakish brother, combine to create a mesmerizing tale of love and the thirst for power. 


As Slope and Mrs. Proudie (who began as great friends) priggishly fight on for control over Bishop Proudie and his actions, ambition takes on a new meaning. A church appointment is made by one, and contradicted by the other: another appointment is made and overturned by the other: it creates a delightful almost-comedy of errors in which you chuckle at the power struggle and feel sorry for the innocent people affected so deeply by it. There is no language to speak of, and very little violence (if you can even call it that): a woman slaps a man (with good reason). Many discussions take place about corruption and nepotism in the Church of England, and the need for reform: nothing untoward is mentioned, other than that men are appointed and paid for doing very little work: nothing to do with Christianity, the reform is do with the church, its appointments, and its care of the people of Britain. Other content: a man flirts outrageously with many women, and a woman flirts with many men. 


On the whole, a very unobjectionable film that entertains and delights on one hand, even as you cant help but be saddened and appalled at the actions of some on the other. What amazes me most about the power-hungry actions of some characters is that all this takes place in the relatively small town of Barchester. Overall, this 1982 TV mini-series by BBC gives a fascinating in-depth look at the clergy and church reform, as it so realistically just might have been. 

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