Miniseries that looks great but lacks grit

May 12, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Take A Girl Like You" has style, a cool jazz score, rich 1950s detail, a good-looking leading man and a gorgeous female star. Based on a book by Kingsley Amis, it also has a script by Andrew Davies, the best screenwriter in English television ("A Rather English Marriage").

So why does this four-hour miniseries from "Masterpiece Theatre" leave me so cold?

The answer lies in what the producers have done to Amis' book. Written in the 1950s, it was part of the Angry Young Man movement in England - a full-frontal literary assault on a stultifying system of social class and morality that was still firmly in place despite a world war that had threatened England's very existence.

This television version of the book ignores the leading man's anger about the class system, instead turning him into the kind of bemused good-looking rake that Hugh Grant has made a career out of playing. Here he's played by Rupert Graves, who isn't half-bad himself at standing around in a tuxedo with a cocktail glass in his hand and sex, sex, sex on his mind.

In the end, sex is all this production is about. Despite the grand English country houses, the men in black tie and women in knockout party dresses, "Take A Girl Like You" takes the Angry Young Man School of English Literature and turns it into the Horny Young Man School of American Television.

The young man is Patrick Standish (Graves), a Latin teacher and local stud at a boy's school outside of London. One day, he sees the gorgeous, blond Jenny Bunn (Sienna Guillory) step off a train and stride across the town square like a vision in white, and he becomes sexually obsessed with her.

But this is the 1950s, and Bunn, a young schoolteacher from the north of England, is a virgin who is determined to remain one until marriage. "And so the game is on," one character says.

Davies, the 64-year-old screenwriter, defines the game like this in press materials:

"Will he seduce and abandon her, or will she get the wedding ring she's after?" That's what the four full hours is about, and yes, indeed, it does get a bit tiring, even with "Masterpiece Theatre" host Russell Baker putting the film into a cultural context as an ode of sorts to a time and set of sexual mores long past.

The most interesting aspect of "Take A Girl Like You" might be found in what it suggests to us about a changing concept of beauty. By coincidence, it was scheduled to air the same night as "Blonde," the CBS miniseries about Marilyn Monroe.

Both productions are set in the 1950s, and both celebrate the pale, blond ideal of feminine beauty. This at a time when Jessica Alba of "Dark Angel" is defining the hot, new multicultural look in television, in a year when Jennifer Lopez seems to be everywhere.

`Take A Girl Like You'

When: Tomorrow night and May 20 at 9.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

In brief: Long on looks, style and sex. Short on story and substance.

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