At a cost of £6.5 million, Fortunes of War was, at the time, the most expensive BBC series ever made. It may well have been made as result of criticism of the BBC, in some quarters, of the Corporation's failure to produce quality dramas of the type that Granada had delivered with their huge blockbusters, Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel In The Crown. But if viewers had been kept waiting for the BBC to come up with the goods, then the wait was worthwhile.
Based on Olivia Manning's six novels comprising The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which Anthony Burgess once wrote was possibly "the finest record (of World War II) produced by a British writer", Fortunes of War tells the story of the war's effect on a small group of British citizens. At the centre of the tale is a newly married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, played by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, as they are caught in the terrifying aftermath of Hitler's advance across the eastern front. The story is almost biographical in its reflection of Manning's own true-life experiences as she accompanied her husband to Bucharest before the War and then fled the advancing Nazis to Greece, Egypt, and eventually Jerusalem.
As the tale opens, Guy and Harriet have arrived in Bucharest, having travelled there by the Orient Express, to stay in the Hotel Athenee Palace, where Guy's friends, all expatriates gather in the English bar. Guy has come here to take up a lecturers job and it soon becomes apparent that he is totally wrapped up in his work, to the detriment of his relationship with Harriet. He is also a liberal idealist who, although aware of Germany's invasion of Poland, believes the goodwill of the Russians will be enough to hold off the Nazis. However, as the conflict deepens and Romania turns fascist, the Pringles, and their group of friends, are forced to flee.
The disparate group include a scrounging Russian; Prince Yakimov (played by Ronald Pickup), a foreign office executive; Dobson (Charles Kay), a young Army officer; Simon Boulderstone (Robert Graves), a Jewish refugee; Sasha Drucker (Harry Burton), a poet; Bill Castlebar (Robert Stephens) and another visiting lecturer; Lord Pinkrose (Alan Bennett). The group moves on to Greece, managing to stay just one step ahead of the Nazis, but here Yakimov is shot dead by the police and the Pringle's love for each other is severely put to the test when they are forcibly separated from each other, before arriving in Cairo where Harriet attracts the attention of a handsome officer; Charles Warden (Jeremy Brundenell).
The BBC spared no expense and during the course of filming nearly 2,000 1940s costumes were transported from location to location. The job of adapting Olivia Manning's epic tale was given to Alan Plater, but it is rumoured that he was displeased by having to turn the six-book story into seven television parts. Nonetheless, this doesn't detract from a first-class drama. The series was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and in the USA it was shown under the Masterpiece Theatre strand. One American critic was inspired enough to congratulate the series for its "brilliant images wed to witty words and actors lazing about like lions," making it "a thoughtful delight."
Published on December 13th, 2018. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.