It has been over 30 years since I first saw the Granada miniseries Brideshead Revisited, and ever since then I have considered it the finest drama ever produced for television. I still do. The writing (much of it lifted directly from Evelyn Waugh’s novel), the acting, the photography, the direction, the music were all, as the British would say, top-shelf, and I have never questioned my original assessment of it as the best. There have been flashes of brilliance in other dramatic series, but, taken as a whole, nothing compares with Brideshead. But I have just seen a six-part miniseries that comes very close. And the chances are that you’ve never heard of it.
The series is called Cloudstreet, and the DVD is available, although it has yet to be seen on American TV. The production is from Australia and is based on a much-acclaimed (in Australia) novel by Tim Winton. It has nothing in common with Brideshead except the quality of the story and the wizardry of the casting and direction and acting. It probably will not satisfy all tastes, but it certainly satisfied mine.
The story involves two families in Western Australia in the 40s and 50s. They are the Lambs and the Pickles, both hit by the depression and by tragedy. Sam Pickles has lost the fingers of one hand in an accident, and the Lambs’ youngest son has nearly drowned and is as a result retarded. Sam Pickles inherits a large but ramshackle house near Perth and looks for a family of tenants to share in the upkeep. Enter the Lambs. The spine of the story is the relationship of the two families as the years pass. But it is most assuredly not a soap opera. “It is a story about life,” says the book’s author, simply.
Promising as the story is, it is the artistry of the director (Matthew Saville) that produces the magic that we see unfold in the DVD. That plus the casting. The acting is absolutely flawless, and it is all the more striking to an American viewer because the Australian cast is unfamiliar. There is not a weak link in the bunch.
How can Australia, which has fewer people than Texas, produce such a beautifully crafted television drama? Years ago, the country gave us A Town Like Alice, an excellent series based on a Nevil Shute novel, but that was 1981 (the same year that gave us Brideshead). Maybe there were other great dramas from Down Under, and I just haven’t been paying attention, but I doubt it. But I certainly will be watching from now on, and I have marked Matthew Saville as a name to be reckoned with.
You are unlikely to see Cloudstreet on Masterpiece Theater. The series has several sexually explicit scenes and some four-letter words, and the Aussies would probably not tolerate heavy-handing editing. Too bad; such quality television deserves a large audience.