BBC 1967 Adaptation of “Sword of Honour” Now Available

There is an announcement on YouTube of the availability for home viewing of the three 90-minute episodes of the BBC’s 1967 Theatre 625 adaptation of Waugh’s war trilogy Sword of Honour. The adaptation was written by Giles Cooper and directed by Donald McWhinnie who met with Waugh about the project shortly before Waugh’s death. See previous post.

There is a brief clip from part two on the YouTube post.  Here’s the link. The supplier is Roberts (Hard to Find) Video. E-mail and North American telephone contacts are posted on YouTube. Callers from outside North America should use the Canadian number 306-955-3763; the country code for Canada is 613. Here’s a link to the website. Digital downloads of each episode are available from the Canadian supplier who hopes to be able to offer DVDs and VHS tapes once regular international mail services have been restored in Canada. Although these are substantial downloads and take considerable computer space, the downloading, which took abut 5 minutes for each episode, was fairly straightforward in the format used.

I have watched the three episodes and can confirm that the picture and sound quality are good. Part one (“Men at War”) covers the story in that volume of the trilogy. Much of Waugh’s dialogue is taken straight off the page, and little of the story has been changed (although there may be bits that have been dropped). The character of Apthorpe, played by veteran actor Ronald Fraser, carries much of the comedy and a good deal of the plot for this episode. This is even more noticeable in the TV film than it is in the novel. Ritchie-Hook as played by Paul Hardwick is a bit more OTT but so is he in the novel. One small complaint is how they handled the severed head from the West African landing party. Rather than suggest its existence and show a sack which might contain it, special effects made up a plaster model of a black man’s head, with bulging eyes and shiny teeth. It looks as if it had already been shrunken to Ritchie-Hook’s specifications. Those scenes would not play well on today’s TV.

The second part (“Officers and Gentlemen”) is a bit more difficult to follow and even having read the book several times, there are moments where I found it difficult to keep up. The sound quality deteriorates when too many actors are talking or they are too far from the microphones. There are no subtitles, but they would be of little use unless produced from the script rather than the soundtrack. But they do manage to get in most of the story. In particular, the story of Trimmer’s “heroism” is fully displayed, although at some points a bit of the humor is lost because it is moving so fast. The actor playing Trimmer (Tim Preece) should have been funnier than he was. His accent seemed a bit off and he should probably have had more than one which he could change to fit his audience. But whether his relative dullness was his fault or the screenwriter’s I could not say. Ian Kilbannock (played by James Villers) comes across as the source of much of the comedy, with his ironic pronouncements on whatever he happens to be describing.

Part three (“Unconditional Surrender”) is probably the best of the lot. The story is simpler and more linear and there are fewer characters to deal with, most of whom will by now be familiar. The humor in this part is supplied mostly by Ludovic, played brilliantly and just as written by Waugh. The actor is Freddie Jones who later became quite well known for playing comic parts. Uncle Peregrine (Basil Dignan) is also played just as written by Waugh. Some funny bits are omitted such as the witch doctor hired by Army intelligence but most of the story is preserved. The ending conforms to the changes made in the second and later printings to limit Guy and his new wife to one child (Gervase, fathered by Trimmer and Guy’s wife Virginia). The story of the Jewish refugees is somewhat truncated; at least, I do not recall hearing about the arrests of the Kanyis and the transfer of the others to Italy. Guy Crouchback and his wife Virginia are played by Edward Woodward and Vivien Pickles to their expected high standards.

So far as I am aware, BBC has not rebroadcast this series since the 1960s nor was it ever released on DVD or videotape. It has been available on a limited basis in the UK through the BFI, but this requires a visit (perhaps multiple visits) to their London “Mediatheque” on the South Bank.  It was sometimes available in other cities at libraries or theaters for on-site viewing, but that no longer seems to be the case.

The 2001 two-episode (193 minute) adaptation by William Boyd and starring Daniel Craig as Guy Crouchback, can be seen currently on UK Channel 4’s free streaming service. This will require a UK internet connection. DVD copies of the C4 adaptation are also widely available. It necessarily leaves out more of the story but is on the whole quite satisfactory.

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