The Count of Monte Cristo (1964)

Once feared lost, but recently released on DVD, this fondly remembered BBC adaptation of the Dumas classic was originally screened as a Sunday evening serial in 12 black & white episodes. Each ran about 25 minutes and all work well thanks to amazing feats of compression by writer Anthony Steven, as well as intrepid direction from Peter Hammond. Though obviously limited in budget, the series manages to be both elegant and ambitious, with convincing costumes and small-scale sets lit in the Gothic manner. The cast is uniformly splendid, but Alan Badel in particular is an inspired choice for the title role; at 40 or so he's a little too old for the youthful Edmond Dantes and plays him with a kind of wide-eyed innocence that borders on insouciance - I don't think I saw him blink once in the first three episodes - but as the returned Count of Monte Cristo, he crowds his expression with nods and crosses and sideways glancing blows. He is by no means perfect for the role - in essence his performance is the definitive Monte Cristo, but not the definitive Dantes. Perhaps that was his intent.

The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is probably too famous to bear repeating briefly, but... young ship's mate Edmond Dantes is framed as a Bonapartist and sent to a notorious island prison; after 14 years he escapes and, with the help of a fabulous treasure, wreaks a terrible revenge on those who betrayed him. The keys to the cell being - with the help of a fabulous treasure. Because I never quite went past the notion that the Count of Monte Cristo was just a figment of a mad prisoner's imagination; and that the entire revenge was simply a lot of scribbling on the walls of a cell. It is so intricately plotted, and the frailty of its characters is so marked by correction, that it is always revenge fantasy - the story never escapes the youthful brooding Dantes, no matter how much the Count of Monte Cristo attempts to ameliorate his rage.

And somehow my favourite scene always remains the same no matter which version I see - as Mercedes pleads with Monte Cristo to spare her son's life, and he becomes Dantes again and offers his own life in her son's place. It is Dantes' moment of triumph, but it is also Monte Cristo's defeat. In other versions, and perhaps also in the original novel, that moment feels like a suitable end-point, and I was never quite sure why Dumas ventured far beyond it. But this modest 1964 serial also renders Monte Cristo into the tender affections of Ali Pasha's daughter, Haydee, and it is there he finds... not redemption by any means, but the shared space of prisoners.

Ultimately, the best screen version of this classic, and well worth seeing.

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