Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Must Masterpiece Theatre butcher BBC dramas?

"I don't want to be somebody's sweetheart—I want to be somebody!" Denise declares to Sam in the fourth episode of "The Paradise." This is perhaps the purest statement of an ongoing theme* in the series. But American viewers who watched "The Paradise" on PBS this winter didn't see it. It went to the cutting room floor, along with the eight or so minutes that were cut in PBS's broadcasts from the original 59-60 minute BBC episodes.

In its December 5th issue, Parade Magazine explained that the reason for the lag of four months between the BBC and PBS showings of "Downton Abbey" was to allow time for "editing for American audiences." One might assume that this means the disappearance of references to obscure facets of Britannia. But what it really seems to mean is to allow PBS to add ads—Ralph Lauren's anorexic girl-women slouching in their fur hats, rich people enjoying river cruises—along with a Masterpiece Theatre introduction.

Since receiving the original BBC version of "The Paradise" on DVD for Christmas, it has become a game with me to try to figure out which scenes and snippets of dialogue were cut from the PBS broadcast. Party scenes, perfumed letters sent on a tray, old lovers meeting in a park—all appeared for the first time in this viewing. Sure, the series could move along and seem intact without such moments. But some cuts are more egregious than others: the orphan, Arthur, finally being told his true origins by Mr. Lovett (the PBS version had him bring up the question, never resolved); Clara being ordered never to go to Mr. Moray's room again by Mr. Dudley (no reason why she suddenly stopped trying in the PBS version); Sam's more blatant attempts to romance Denise; Miss Audrey talking about "regret" with Mr. Moray, a phrase he will later, significantly, repeat to Denise that  same evening (revealing that Miss Audrey was more empathetic and aware than was seen in her American form).

I know that PBS has to pay for its programming, but I wish there was a way they could do it without resorting to such surgery.

When I was young and in a small town with few intellectual resources, I looked to PBS as a lifeline to the greater world. It is a lifeline I have cherished for many years, even after I moved to bigger towns. I hate to cut that lifeline now, and I won't entirely. But if there is a BBC drama I really want to invest my time in, I know now that I will have to buy it on DVD or wait for it to appear on Netflix if I want to see it the way the screenwriter and director intended for it to be seen.

* Unlike the female characters in "Downton Abbey" who are punished for trying to rise above their station, or for simply being women.

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