This vintage black & white adaptation of the Alexandra Dumas classic was made in 1964 and remains the best version yet.
The trouble with vintage television is that even those of us who like it feel obliged to make allowances: what might have seemed opulent when glimpsed through the snow of a fifteen-inch screen back in the day looks altogether shabbier viewed on a pin-sharp LCD monitor that takes up half the wall.
The version of The Count of Monte Cristo, originally transmitted in 1964 is a case in point: it was a big deal back then, one of the BBC’s tentpole shows of the year (the fact all twelve episodes still exist shows it was held in more esteem than many of the corporation’s output for that year). But it was shot mainly on video, mainly in tiny studios. Oh, and since this was 1964 it was in black and white too: another strike against it. Another allowance that has to be made.
Here’s the thing, though: beyond a certain point, asking for allowances to be made starts sounding like apologies or excuses. After all, we don’t beg indulgence for vintage films – we just watch and enjoy ‘em. Why should television be so very different? Especially when, like The Count of Monte Cristo, they have nothing to apologise for.
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of very best adaptations of a classic novel that the BBC has ever mounted: thrilling, dynamic and compulsive, quite apart from being brilliantly acted. And I refuse to tag a ‘despite...’ at the end of all that.
This is storytelling of the highest order. Of course we need to acknowledge that this isn’t an original work but Alexandre Dumas’ original novel seems ideally suited for the telly: since it was originally published in instalments, it fits neatly into episodic television. And since it was originally meant as pulse-pounding entertainment, there’s none of the awkward worthiness that so many of the Beeb’s prestige products suffer from.
Anthony Steven's dextrous adaptation takes no great liberties with the text. Our hero is Edmond Dantes, a genial youngster with everything to look forward to. Alas, he has enemies, jealous of his imminent marriage to the beautiful Mercedes. These enemies conspire to have him arrested as an enemy of the French state; this ‘crime’ means a life sentence.
Good fortune, though, has not entirely turned its back on Dantes. First he meets a fellow convict who’s begun an escape tunnel. Sadly, Dantes’ new friend will die before it is completed, but not before he has let slip a secret: there is an unimaginable fortune buried on the deserted island of Monte Cristo.
Reasoning that it would be a shame to let an unimaginable fortune go to waste, that’s where Dantes goes after making good his escape, thence heading to Paris. Re-styling himself ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, he begins plotting intricate revenge on those who brought him low.
All this unfolds at a pace that modern dramas would envy, skilfully staged by director Peter Hammond. There are, it’s true, some fluffed lines and the occasional misaligned shot but it’s more interesting to see just how much Hammond and his crew were able to achieve with their resources than to apologetically note those few moments where they fell short.
The big difference between television now and then is that these days TV shows are made more like films. Back then, they were produced more like plays and there was, accordingly, a greater emphasis on performance and that’s where The Count of Monte Cristo really shines, never brighter than with its title character.
He is played by Alan Badel and it is simply impossible to imagine anyone better. Moving from young lover to gimlet-eyed avenger, Badel commands scene – every shot – completely. As in theatre, the actor’s evident belief in the character and his situation makes it easy for us to ignore the fakery that surrounds him and, what are by to-day’s standards, limited production values.
To put all this another way, you don’t need to make allowances for vintage television, you just need to adjust to a slightly different way of doing things. It’s worth making the effort because there is much pleasure to be had, as The Count of Monte Cristo shows.
This is an edited version of an article by James Oliver for MovieMail