Peter Conchie's Television Review

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HOLIDAYS PROVIDE the chance to sit down with something expansive, like a long novel or history book - an opportunity seized with varying degrees of success by the nation's drama departments.

This year, BBC1 presented The Echo, ITV a predictable Cider with Rosie, and Channel 4 little of dramatic note. Meanwhile, BBC2 followed their impressive adaptation of Henry James's The American on Boxing Day with A Rather English Marriage.

This was boldly flagged as "New drama". In light of this claim, several facts are perhaps best overlooked: first of all, it was an adaptation; secondly, it was dramatised by grizzled costumier Andrew Davies. What's more, it starred those famous old prunes Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney (last seen together in the West End play Art), alongside Joanna Lumley. A case of new drama, old faces.

Angela Lambert's story is essentially lightweight, a period piece on loss, class and old age, which Davies, to his credit, freshened up considerably. Courtenay was wonderful as Roy Southgate, an ex-milkman who was widowed on the same night as Squadron Leader Reginald Conyngham-Jervis. The two lonely old men, encouraged by a social worker, ended up sharing Finney's empty country house, with Southgate effectively a servant.

The manner of the deaths of Reggie and Southgate's wives, within minutes on the same hospital ward, was used as a macabre device to define the surviving partners' social standing. The milko's missus made a raging, rattling exit, while the squadron leader's spouse didn't want any fuss, and croaked quietly without so much as a tug on the bedside emergency cord.

Lumley's performance as a gold-digger was enthusiastic, if a little uneven. The make-up department had done something clever with blusher, which aged her disconcertingly, although, ironically, Lumley was playing a character roughly her own age. As a seductress she is still superb, with an alluring ability to dilate her pupils on cue like a car flashing its headlights.

There were some early Dennis Potter touches, which threatened to dominate the work. While it must be infernally hard to re-create a novelistic flashback of grief and bereavement, at times Davies used the technique as a convenient dramatic shortcut. Both Reggie and Southgate were frequently flown back to their youth, where they opened doors on a past peopled with ghosts which segued rather too neatly to the subsequent scene.

There was some movingly sparse dialogue, such as the exchange after Southgate took an early morning phone call. Reggie stood symbolically at the top of the stairs, Southgate at the foot. "It was the prison. My son's dead. Can I take the car?" The phrases were weighted beautifully, punctuated by an unspoken and poignant telegramatic "stop". All told, it was a rather English drama. "I never could stand hospitals," Reggie blustered to his dying wife. "We met in one," she replied.

Another habitually male environment formed the backdrop for a contemplative edition of Garden Doctors (C4). It would have been impractical and undignified to rush an order of Benedictine monks into finishing their tea, let alone landscaping a garden, something recognised in the first of a two-part garden re-design located at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight.

The brothers were not in a hurry, holding numerous meetings and taking a field trip to the mainland before they consented, but, given, the impatient demands of the makeover format, I was concerned on their behalf.

Perhaps they would awake at dawn to find cloisters painted in ecclesiastical colours, or discover that a bald patch had been mown into the the quadrangle lawn. Presenter-designer Paul Thompson was serenity itself, and humanised the monks, who were given the courtesy of a proper introduction, and were conversed with rather than asked the usual crass questions.

One was an ex-teacher, another once worked in the music industry. "My mother was rather disappointed I became a monk," one chimed, "but I suppose lots of mothers are disappointed with their daughters-in-law."

It was hardly about gardening at all, but when, at last, a sketch was painted, it sounded divine: separate squares of contemplation colour-washed by quince blossom in spring and pale blue irises in summer.