The Glittering Prizes

Written by Frederic Raphael, The Glittering Prizes follows a group of friends over six episodes from their University years in the early 1950s, right up to the (then) present day of 1976, middle age and both becoming parents and losing theirs. Most prominent is Adam Morris (Tom Conti) and much of the serial concentrates on his life and relationship with, and marriage to, Barbara (Barbara Kellerman – credited here with an double N).

Frederic Raphael (born in Chicago in 1931) began as a novelist in the later 1950s but also began writing for the cinema from 1958 and television from 1964. Fluent in French as well as English, his first long-form work for the small screen was actually over the Channel: Un monsieur bon rangé in 1973. There's a sense of a roman à clef (or should that be a scénario à clef) about The Glittering Prizes, not least in the fact that at the end of the third episode, Adam wins an Oscar, as Raphael did in 1965 for his screenplay for Darling. Much of Adam's story involves his Jewish identity. While the first episode, with Adam at University, sees him meeting Barbara, it concentrates on his friendship with Donald (David Robb), who is dying, and his meeting with Donald's well-off family, and the clash of Adam's Jewishness with their Catholicism. There's more than a whiff of Brideshead Revisited about this episode, made five years before the celebrated television serial, and the prominent placing of a copy of the novel in one shot is likely no accident.

And yet, Glittering Prizes is not a conventionally unified serial, and may be best seen as a series of six linked plays. Three of them centre on Adam and Barbara. However, while Adam appears briefly at the start of the second episode, he and Barbara don't feature until the end of it, the rest of this episode being an ensemble piece with the other principal characters. Adam takes centre stage again in the third episode, which ends with that Oscar win, but he and Barbara do not appear in the fourth and fifth. The fourth is another ensemble piece. The fifth, while some of the regular characters appear, centres on a one-off character (played by Dinsdale Landen). This episode's academic satire is oddly reminiscent of Malcolm Bradbury's just-published novel The History Man, adapted for TV in 1981, which was directed by this episode's director Robert Knights (and which I reviewed here.)

As if to make up for Adam's absence for two episodes and about eleven years of internal chronology, the sixth and final episode begins with him delivering a monologue, for the first minute and a half direct to camera in close-up, which turns out to be a speech he is giving to a small gathering. Adam is then barely off the screen, as the rest of the running time features him in a series of scenes very much driven by dialogue. (Conti has barely aged, but Kellerman, then around twenty-six but playing fortysomething here, has done, convincingly.)

The dialogue is something which marks this serial out. Much television drama of the time is more akin to the stage than the cinema, and was fairly thought a writer's medium. It is no accident that Raphael gets a "by" credit at the start of each episode, with the two directors (Waris Hussein and Robert Knights, three episodes each) are at the end of the closing credits and are very much in the service of the text, and the actors performing that text. As with the works of many of the leading television writers of the time, these are very much noticeably written scripts, with the educated milieu giving Raphael licence for frequently witty, learned dialogue. It's a pleasure to listen to, and while Tom Conti has by far the showiest role others do make an impression, not least a tour-de-force by Eric Porter as a German academic Adam interviews in the third episode.

While The Glittering Prizes is original to television, Raphael adapted it into a novel with the same title. His next major work for the BBC was the seven-part Oxbridge Blues in 1984.

The Glittering Prizes was first broadcast on BBC2 in January-February 1976 and its second showing, and only subsequent one to date, was in December of that year, finishing in January 1977. The serial was nominated for a BAFTA Award as Best Drama Series/Serial, along with I, Claudius, The Duchess of Duke Street and When the Boat Comes In, but the winner that year was Rock Follies. Admittedly I haven't seen that, but I suspect that won't be the judgement of posterity: that would most likely be I, Claudius, not least because it has been most often repeated. Tom Conti was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Derek Jacobi as Claudius.


The Discs

Simply Media's DVD release of The Glittering Prizes comprises three discs, all encoded for Region 2 only. Each disc contains two episodes, as follows:

Disc One
An Early Life (81:01)
A Love Life (79:14)

Disc Two
A Past Life (80:35)
A Country Life (73:34)

Disc Three
An Academic Life (73:53)
A Double Life (76:39)

Oddly, the second episode has no opening credits sequence. As I didn't see this at the time, due to not being old enough, I don't know if that is as broadcast.

The episodes are transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect from 1970s television. They were made in the then-usual way of 625-line PAL video for studio scenes and 16mm film for exteriors and other location work. The disjunction between the two was certainly noticeable then, and is more so today when you watch this on larger and less forgiving television sets than were available at the time. Let's not forget that by 1976 a not-insignificant proportion of the UK population would have been watching this in black and white. As for the transfers, we may be a little spoiled by the restorations done for some archive-television releasesm but these are quite serviceable: the standard-def video material sharp and the film material somewhat soft and grainy with a little damage, but nothing distracting.

The soundtrack is the original mono, as per broadcast, and no issues there for this very dialogue-driven serial. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available.

There are no extras.



out of 10

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