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Arms and the Man

George Bernard Shaw

This BBC production, directed by James Cellan Jones, was made in 1989 but includes two very young actresses who have gone on to considerable fame subsequently.

The story itself, with its central figure of a chocolate cream soldier, appears to have all of the characteristics of one of those rollicking Anthony Hope novels such as The Prisoner of Zenda. In fact, being by Bernard Shaw it is rather more subtle if still light hearted, and has a political edge as one might expect.

The action takes place in the luxurious home of the Bulgarian Major Petkoff (Dinsdale Landen) just as one of those dreadful Balkan wars is ending.

In the opening scene, the Major's daughter Raina, played by Helena Bonham Carter, seems totally unafraid of the explosions all around, despite the imprecations of caution delivered by her mother (Kika Markham). The young woman's only thoughts are for the heroism of her blonde headed fiancé, Patrick Ryecart's Sergius.

Romance is introduced through the window in the person of the escaping Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli. Pip Torrens plays the enemy as a man whose remarkable honesty makes a real contrast with the behaviour of empty-headed Sergius.

That introduces an extra strand into the drama, since Sergius has fallen for Louka. She is a pretty, little, pouting servant girl with Dreams above first station played by Patsy Kensit. This is hardly good news for the man to whom she is betrothed, who as nothing more than a servant must merely nod and smile at her follies.

The main subjects that Shaw explores are love, passion and honour, although he does obliquely comment on the morality of war along the way.

Arms and the Man is though primarily a comic romance that just happens to have war as a background. It features passionate performances from the two young ladies and comic ones from all three of the leading men. Yet again, it proves that the BBC was pre-eminent in dramatic broadcasting in the 1970s and 1980s, producing work that could compete with the best that the stage had on offer.

It is good to see that the corporation still believes in big-budget costume dramas today but wouldn't it be great if they stopped adapting novels for lavish series and at least occasionally turned back to the country's and their own dramatic heritage?

Reviewer: Philip Fisher