The classic Dickens novels usually end with the central character finally finding a proper place in the world after years of hardship and misadventures. R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days takes the opposite approach of having a character with a tragic backstory find his proper place on the very first page, and spending the rest of his life realizing it. In 1980, BBC tapped Andrew Davies (later to pen prior RBC recommendation House of Cards) to adapt the novel to the small screen, and the result is a fine 13 part miniseries that I recommend to you this week.
The series opens with shell-shocked, limping, wan, Welshman David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine) returning from the horrors of the trenches to apply for a teaching post at Bamfylde boarding school in Devon. The wily, gentle, headmaster Algy Herries (endearingly played by Frank Middlemass) sees potential in the traumatized young man and hires him as a teacher. Surrounded by better educated, better born, men, Powlett-Jones initially struggles with that peculiarly Welsh working class admixture of pride and insecurity. But he slowly begins to find his footing, largely because he develops positive relationships with Algy as well as with a lonely, cynical, yet also compassionate senior housemaster (Alan MacNaughtan). He also grows to understand and be respected by the boys, despite not sharing their class background nor their politics.
David’s life is also shaped profoundly by three women he loves over the years, each of whom is emblematic of a different historical age. Beth Marwood is the perfect Victorian helpmate (indeed too perfect, she is the most flat character in the series unfortunately for Belinda Lang, who does her best). She is followed by the sexually liberated Julia, who has a flapper sensibility even though her horizons are limited by the social and occupational constraints placed on women in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Christine Forster arrives in a David’s life as a powerful person in her own right both psychologically and politically, facing down sexism while running for Parliament.
This series really grew on me episode by episode. In part that was due to Duttine’s layered performance as a lost, angry, and tentative person becoming over many years completely at home at Bamflyde, invested in life, and deservedly confident of his abilities. I also appreciated that some characters who started out as stereotypes, like Carter the failed soldier turned teacher (Neil Stacy) and the icy martinet headmaster Alcock (Charles Kay) became better-rounded over time. But the most rewarding feature of the series — as in virtually all drama — were the rich human relationships brought alive by a worthy script, directors, and cast.
The series isn’t perfect. The 12th episode features a subplot about anti-Semitism that is disappointingly carmelized and should have been dropped, one of the revelations in the final episode isn’t set up well enough in earlier episodes to have the desired impact, and throughout the series isn’t much to look at in terms of sets or camerawork. But it’s almost impossible to put 11 hours of film together and not have some weak spots.
To Serve Them All My Days is the sort of literate, solid entertainment upon which the BBC’s reputation for high quality drama rests. Make yourself a pot of tea and get watching.