Sweeps Relief TV preview: In 'Gulliver's Travels,' NBC offers a nifty adventure tale -- with a lot of help from the Brits.

February 03, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

American network television has finally figured out a way to make miniseries of nearly the same quality as those British imports seen on PBS and A&E: Hire the Brits.

That's what NBC did with "Gulliver's Travels," which premieres tomorrow night on WBAL (Channel 11) at 9 and finishes up at 9 p.m. Monday. Outside of Ted Danson (as Dr. Lemuel Gulliver) and Danson's wife, Mary Steenburgen (as Gulliver's wife, Mary), this production is bursting with Brits, and the result is a crackerjack adaptation of the 18th-century Jonathan Swift satire.

The producer is Duncan Kenworthy, who produced the feature film, "Four Weddings and a Funeral." The director is Charles Sturridge who directed "Brideshead Revisted."

Yes, "Brideshead Revisted" -- as fine a miniseries as has ever been made or probably will ever be made. Just typing the title makes me want

to pull out the whole eight hours of it, stoke up the VCR and let myself be transported once again to Brideshead by Sturridge.

"Gulliver" is only half as long as "Brideshead," and not even half as compelling, but that still makes it twice the miniseries you're likely to see on network television this month.

There are a few other Brits in front of the camera for "Gulliver," too: Peter O'Toole, Sir John Gielgud, James Fox, Edward Fox, Edward Woodward, Phoebe Nicholls, Warwick Davis, Kristin Scott Thomas, Graham Crowden, Robert Hardy and Edward Petherbridge. Not too shabby, as we say on this side of the Atlantic.

If there is one American who is absolutely indispensable to "Gulliver" it is Brian Henson, co-executive-producer. His fantasy factory, Jim Henson Productions (he's the late Muppet creator's son) is responsible for the special effects, which are just this side of terrific by television standards. But, in keeping with our British theme, Henson's production company is headquartered in London.

L So, there you are, as they say on that side of the Atlantic.

As for Danson and Steenburgen, well, NBC was not about to spend $28 million on four hours of television airing during a "sweeps" ratings month and not have American stars with some proven ratings oomph in the lead. And, from a public relations angle, what could be better than the mister and missus on the cover of TV Guide talking about how they fell in love during the making of "Gulliver"?

Danson is better than you might imagine he would be (but not nearly as good as he and Steenburgen think he is). As for her, there are only about 2,000 actresses who could have done better. Danson and Steenburgen are the reason for the "nearly" in the lead of this review.

Ultimately, their limitations do not matter all that much, because the story's the thing in this production. And what a nifty job screenwriter Simon Moore (yes, another Brit) does with the story.

For those not familiar with the original, "Gulliver's Travels" is the saga of one man's incredible journey after being shipwrecked. His first stop is in Lilliput, land of the Little Enders who have been at war with the Big Enders for so long no one can remember why. To the inhabitants of Lilliput he is a giant.

Then Gulliver finds himself in Brobdingnag, the land of the giants. To them he is no larger than a toy soldier. There's also the Academy, the Sorcerer's Palace and, finally, the Land of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.

Virtually all of the original journey is found in Moore's adaptation, and the satire is made accessible to today's audiences.

But the truly clever choice by Moore and Sturridge was to tell the story of Gulliver's journey in flashback, wrapping it in another storyline that they thought might be more compelling to a mass American television audience.

So, the film opens with Gulliver returning home after his eight-year journey only to find his house owned by another man, Dr. Bates (James Fox). Gulliver's wife and son (Thomas Sturridge) are living in Dr. Bates' home, with her working as housekeeper. Dr. Bates wants Mary Gulliver to be his wife.

When Gulliver starts to recount his journey for his son, Dr. Bates convinces Mary that Gulliver is deranged. Before long, a drugged Gulliver is committed to Bedlam Asylum, a hell from which Dr. Bates hopes Gulliver will never be released.

Gulliver's son, Tom, holds the key to his father's release. Tom's invention and use by screenwriter Moore is also key to this production. He is the point of entry for young viewers.

Give NBC credit. It clearly tried to make a quality television production of a literary classic that would work for both children and adults. I think it will work better for kids, but there is more than enough happening on the screen to engage Mom and Dad.

The ratings will probably depend on how big a tune-in or tune-out Ted and Mary create. I say, look past them and you'll find quite a lot to like in "Gulliver's Travels."

'Gulliver's Travels'

Stars: Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen

When: 9 p.m. -- 11 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: NBC, Channel 11 (WBAL)

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