All in the Family

Stop me before I rant on about the Mitfords, to whom anecdotes so often happened. From Mary Lovell’s new biography of all six sisters (“girls in pearls”), previously published memoirs by Diana (unrepentant Fascist) and Jessica (erstwhile Communist), Harold Acton’s recently reissued little book on Nancy, and the two Nancy novels that Masterpiece Theatre has cobbled together for an indulgent mini-series, we’ve more than enough pet names, cruel jokes, witty condescension, and sad comeuppance to stuff a country house the size of Swinbrook.

Moreover, we also have all the evidence we need to see that Matthew Radlett (Alan Bates), the crackpot patriarch of Love in a Cold Climate, is only marginally more ridiculous than Nancy’s own father, Lord Redesdale, who likewise called foreigners “sewers” and kept a mongoose to catch rats. That when Radlett’s daughter Linda (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh) – far more romantic than sensible Fanny (Rosamund Pike) or the ice queen Polly (Megan Dodds) – abandons her Spanish refugees to fall in love with a De Gaulle-connected duke (Samuel Labarthe), she is following in Nancy’s own footsteps (although the actual Gaston, unlike the fictional Fabrice, survived the war and married someone else). And that Linda’s younger sister Jassy (Jemima Rooper), saving her allowance from age 12 in a “Running Away” account at Drummonds Bank, is modeled on Nancy’s sister Jessica, who used those shillings to leave home forever at age 19.

On the other hand, while Communists are portrayed in the mini-series as just another category of eccentric, like Canadian homosexuals – Linda marries one, between her banker and her duke – Fascists are nowhere to be found. Which is to say that from the novels, Nancy omitted her mother, who urged Hitler to eat more whole-meal bread; her sister Unity, who followed the Führer all over Berlin but apparently never slept with him; and her sister Diana, who married the British Fascist Oswald Mosley, went to prison, and was quoted just the other day as suggesting that maybe the Jews should move to Uganda, where the weather’s warm and there’s lots of room.

But I digress. Fanny, who is smashing, marries an Oxford don. Polly, who should know better, marries her uncle (an Anthony Andrews even more dissipated than he was at the end of Brideshead Revisited), who leaves her for the gay Canadian blade (Daniel Evans). I won’t tell you what happens to Linda. Nor have I even mentioned Lord Merlin (John Wood), Lady Montdore (an astounding Sheila Gish), and Fanny’s long-lost mother (Frances Barber), who is so wayward she won’t show up until next week, with a Spanish chef. See them trample grapes to froth. One forgets how funny well-bred England used to be, how big and bright the bubbles were before they burst.

Although the combined talents of Patrick Chamoiseau, the West Indian novelist whose Texaco is an ornament of postcolonial literature, Walter Mosley, whose Easy Rawlins detective stories are ornaments of American literature, and Djimon Hounsou, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, ought to add up to something wonderful, I’m sorry to say that The Middle Passage, a Haitian-made meditation on the transatlantic slave trade, is overly rhetorical. The millions of lives lost – to disease, revolt, and suicide – in the months at sea between Dahomey and the plantations of the New World need picturing and sorrow songs more than a lugubrious poeticizing of hyena gods.

My Khmer Heart explores another historical atrocity from an equally unsatisfying angle. That the flamboyant Australian Geraldine Cox should have cared for 60 Cambodian orphans throughout the fratricidal politics of the post-Pol Pot period is no doubt admirable. And we have reason to be grateful for Hun Sen’s change of heart when Cox petitions him to stay on after she’s lost her royal patron. But only at the end of these two hours will we see the pagoda of skulls on the killing fields.

There’s almost no intelligence on how the Khmer Rouge could have happened in the first place. Nor is there much of a feel for the dread at large in a broken country seeded with land mines and peopled with cripples, whose economy subsists entirely on tourism and aid programs and whose health-care system is a lottery. I went there a year ago, to see the Angkor jungle ruins, of course. So instead of exhaling any more literary vapors about a sandalstone model of the Hindu universe, I should just tell you that Cambodia is the saddest place in the world.

Love in a Cold Climate: Mondays, February 11 and 18, 9pm-10:30pm. Channel 13.

The Middle Passage: Saturday, February 9, 10:05pm-11:30pm. HBO.

My Khmer Heart: Tuesday, February 5, 6:30pm-8:30pm. Cinemax

Also noted:
Bill Moyers Reports: Trading Democracy (February 5; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is more bad news from television’s tireless conscience, this time on how nafta protects multinational corporations from local U.S., Canadian, and Mexican laws on fraud and environmental damage by insisting on billions of dollars in compensation for violating a “free trade” agreement. Such compensation is determined not in any court, but by “secret trade tribunals.”

Town Without Pity (February 6; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is the third TV movie reuniting the cast of Diagnosis Murder, and by far the gloomiest. The various Van Dykes investigate the disappearance of Dr. Sloan’s daughter (Stacy Van Dyke), who’s made the mistake of stopping with her new Lebanese husband for some car repair in a mountain village where everybody lies a lot and hates Arabs.

American Porn (February 7; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13), looking into an explosion of the hard-core stuff in movies, magazines, retail stores, and, most notably, cyberspace, permits Frontline to deplore this excess while showing it, too. On cable, this is known as exploitation.

The Red Sneakers (February 10; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime), in which Gregory Hines directs himself as well as Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Dempsey Pappion as a high-school student who is gifted at math but basketball-impaired, argues with some sweet narrative moves for an underground connection between geometry and layups.

Guilty Hearts (February 10 and 13; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) should teach Marcia Gay Harden, who is married to someone else, not to have an affair with Treat Williams, who’s also married to someone else, just in case Treat decides to murder his wife and blame it on Marcia, about which she might have to testify in court no matter what Olympia Dukakis says. Based, of course, on a true story. Otherwise, it wouldn’t even be moderately interesting.

All in the Family