Russell Baker's fidgeting is distracting opening to 'Masterpiece Theatre'

TELEVISON PREVIEW

October 02, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

So, let's get to the real reason for watching the premiere of the 23rd season of "Masterpiece Theatre" tomorrow night at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67): the debut of humorist Russell Baker as Alistair Cooke's replacement as host.

There's no other way to say it: Baker is not very good.

Actually, there is another way to say it: Baker's pretty bad.

Baker knows it.

In an interview shortly after his first performance was taped, Baker said, "I suspect I'm going to need a thick hide to survive the first few weeks of comment when all these people say, 'Well, it's not Alistair Cooke. My God, what is it?' "

He went on to describe his new job as "an astonishing opportunity to make an utter a of yourself in front of several million people."

Baker comes nowhere near doing that badly. His main problems are nerves and bad directing.

Baker is so ill at ease that it's hard to concentrate on what he's saying about the program he's trying to introduce, "Selected Exits," starring Anthony Hopkins. The nervousness shows mainly his twitching and jumping hands.

A good director would have simply photographed Baker at closer range so we don't see his hands. That would have made for a static and visually boring segment, but at least the hands would not have gotten in the way of the message.

But, not only are we shown his hands, the director then has Baker take reading glasses out of his jacket pocket, put them on, read from a book, take the glasses off and put them back in his pocket. Baker's hands do stop fidgeting once they're put to use with the book and glasses, but Baker looks so strained making the movements that we're then distracted by that.

The good news is that nerves and directing are things that should be correctable over time.

What might not be correctable, however, is the jarring sound of an American voice after the camera pans Baker's study to show us all the English titles and artifacts from prior "Masterpiece" productions.

But maybe, that's just a matter of missing Cooke, and time will take care of that, too. Let's hope so.

Oh, yeah, "Selected Exits."

It's a 90-minute dramatization of the memoirs of the Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas, who died in 1981. It's told in flashbacks, with Hopkins as the middle-aged writer.

Viewers be warned: Hopkins is not on screen all that much.

Brendan O'Hea plays Gwyn at 18, and

Gavin Rhys Ashcroft plays the writer at 13. Dramatically, the best segments are those that show us Gwyn as a teen-ager. At 13, he's the son of an unemployed coal miner getting most of his lessons on life from a father with a drinking problem. At 18, he's a brilliant but very-out-of-place kid on scholarship at Oxford.

"Selected Exits" has moments from those teen-age years that are sweet, sad and splendid. It also has wise and wonderful things to say about education and social class.

But, overall, it is uneven and lacking in a lasting emotional punch. Furthermore, I suspect, much of the commentary on class distinction and prejudice is not going to be nearly as interesting to American audiences as it probably was to English viewers.

From Baker's arrival to Gwyn's "Selected Exits," it's not the greatest launch of a new season for "Masterpiece Theatre."

But, on the other hand, "Masterpiece" hasn't lasted for 22 years on the kindness of reviewers. Things should get better once Baker settles down and "Masterpiece" settles into its new season.

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