TV Reviews : 'Sorrell and Son' Tastes Like Soggy Biscuits

If "Masterpiece Theatre" keeps serving up soggy biscuits like "Sorrell and Son" (starting Sunday night on PBS), the venerable British import may have to change its name. But who'd tune in to "Mediocrity Theater"?

At least the five-part "Sorrell and Son," adapted from a novel by Warwick Deeping, isn't a disaster like last week's one-shot "Northanger Abbey." It's a tolerable drama about some very likable people--war-hero-turned-hotel-porter Capt. Stephen Sorrell, son Kit and such stock English characters as faithful servants, benevolent masters and a dotty vicar.

But that's also just the problem--one problem, anyway--with Sunday night's hourlong opener (9 p.m. Channels 28 and 15, 8 p.m. on Channel 24).

These people are too likable--unrealistically caring, kind and resigned. Or, in rare cases when someone less than a saint shows up, he or she flaunts the transparently despicable characteristics of a Snidely Whiplash. Everyone's either a dear old soul or a scoundrel.

The miniseries, which spans a period of 20 years beginning in 1921, is yet another "Masterpiece Theatre" attempt, like the superior "Duchess of Duke Street," to evoke associations with its most famous triumph, "Upstairs, Downstairs."

And here again is that continuing English-TV obsession with class, as in upper and lower. You simply can't judge a Sorrell or whomever by his cover, they keep telling themselves--and us--over and over. We've got the point, already.

There's little sharp-edged dialogue and few surprising turns here, nothing to divert one from the sopiness and predictability. On the other hand, "Sorrell" is competently acted from top to bottom--Richard Pasco is Capt. Sorrell; the son is played by Peter Chelsom as a grown-up and by Paul Critchley as a 12-year-old. It's also fairly well (though unexceptionally) produced and directed.

Once the rather abrupt beginning is out of the way, the slog-along course of sorrowful saint and offspring makes for mildly engrossing fare. At least until episode three, when the now grown-up Kit confronts his long-estranged mother in some insufferably soapy scenes, this Yorkshire Television production is a reasonable time-passer. But that's a l-o-o-o-n-g way from being a masterpiece.

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