'To Be the Best' suffers from rearranging

July 31, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Summer books, summer television: either way, trash tends to have the upper hand. Touching both bases is "To Be the Best," a two-part, four-hour movie based on a best-selling novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford. It is being broadcast on CBS (Channel 11) this Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Mrs. Bradford's "Woman of Substance" was turned into a mini-series of substance several years ago. This is the sequel. Emma Harte, the beautiful and skilled entrepreneur who established Harte's London department store -- think Harrod's -- died a decade earlier.

Now the international Harte empire is being run by Paula O'Neill (Lindsay Wagner), Emma's favorite granddaughter, who saved the company from the greedy clutches of her rotten cousin Jonathan Ainsley (Christopher Cazenove). Jonathan, of course, never stops scheming to destroy Paula. Can Paula be as tough and shrewd as her beloved Grandy? Up organ music, and out.

The Bradford novels, deftly intertwining romance and high finance, celebrate bonds of friendship and family stretching over generations. The villains are those who would underestimate those bonds. Here is soap opera, to be sure, but of good, hearty quality.

Transferred intact to television, as in "A Woman of Substance," Mrs. Bradford's stories wear well. But "To Be the Best" has been disastrously pulled apart and rearranged.

Inasmuch as the executive producer is Robert Bradford, the writer's husband, it can only be assumed that Mrs. Bradford acquiesced in the assault.

The primary reason for the revisions, I suspect, was the casting coup of getting Anthony Hopkins, winner of this year's best-actor Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs."

Mr. Hopkins, sounding here even more like that other Welsactor, Richard Burton, plays Jack Figg, head of security for the

Harte company.

The problem: In the 442-page novel, Figg is a rather minor character, making his entrance around page 418. Obviously, that won't do for a star. So the Figg character is expanded, popping up regularly over the four hours and even wriggling his way into Paula's heart while she she tries to straighten out marital problems with her beloved husband, Shane (David Robb). Wobbly to begin with, the plot staggers.

Shuttling between Macao and Hong Kong, where Paula is

opening a new store, Jonathan and Sarah (Claire Oberman), another nasty cousin, plot to destroy Paula. "The American market has lots of pits," sneers Jonathan, "and I'm going to make sure she falls into one of them."

Meanwhile, he keeps publicly humiliating his Chinese assistant, Tony Chiu (James Saito), who remains curiously cool. With good reason. Tony has his own plan to bring down Jonathan, part of which involves getting him to fall in love with Arabella (Stephanie Beachum), his own mistress. Shrewd Sarah keeps asking Jonathan, "Do you trust that awful little man?"

Mrs. Bradford is the kind of writer partial to the word whilst, and this movie doesn't hesitate to use a line like, "Think of it most carefully, my lovely."

Victorian melodrama survives. Ms. Wagner is a bit stiff in this context, but Mr. Hopkins, pointedly ignoring the fact that he's not doing Shakespeare, fits right in.

The plot takes the most shameless turns, but eventually the viewer is delivered to the comforting payoff: "Your dream lives on, Grandy. You're still the best." Trash has its pleasures.

xTC

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