The Melting Plot

Astonishing Beauty: Adapted by Masterpiece Theatre, Zadie Smith's White Teeth stars Phil Davis and Naomie Harris.Photo: Channel Four Television

We are reminded by a superb Masterpiece Theatre miniseries just what the fuss was all about. The fuss was all about a wonderfully abundant first novel, White Teeth, and the photogenic young woman who wrote it, Zadie Smith. Smith would be punished for her success, of course, two years later, when The Autograph Man turned out not to be another White Teeth. Instead of a street comedy about multicultural London, The Autograph Man was a Pilgrim’s Progress, with midgets, across the fraught terrain of celebrity worship, pro wrestling, Chinese shadow puppetry, and the Kabbalah, a kind of Cuisinart in which mention is made, in a single paragraph, of Isaac Hayes, Paul Klee, Bruce Lee, Walter Benjamin, and E.T. Predictably, the reviewers jumped on her for surprising them. And Smith herself was still so young that she declared she’d never write another novel.

Fiddlesticks. This rambunctious television version of White Teeth will win her a second wave of readers and affection, on which it should be possible to surf back from petulance to literature. There on the small screen, as if Salman Rushdie had conspired with Charles Dickens and George Eliot, a Technicolor batch of flawed human beings—half of them native-born, the other half East Asian or Caribbean; some Muslim, a few Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least one an atheist—try to do the right thing. As often as not they fail, but not without a song in their hearts. There is a lot of singing and dancing in White Teeth before the Goths and Vandals who have banded together as Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN) link up with the radical militants Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation (FATE) to cause a riot at the public launch of FutureMouse, a genetically engineered insult to almost everybody except the impervious British upper classes.

Phil Davis plays Archie Jones, a leaflet folder and stamp licker who tries to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve, 1974, but ends up instead among reefer-mad bohemians at an End of the World Party, where he meets Clara (Naomie Harris), a dreamy Jamaican girl who’s lost her front teeth in a motorbike accident. And if you think Clara is an astonishing beauty, wait till next Sunday when you meet her daughter Irie (Sarah Ozeke), who will fall in love with the wrong son of Archie’s only friend and old buddy from World War II. Om Puri plays that friend, Samad Iqbal, who laments the corruptions of the West even as he drinks and adulterizes. To these, add Samad’s wife, Alsana (Archie Panjabi), and his twin sons, Millat and Magid (Christopher Simpson), only one of whom is shipped off to Bangladesh; Clara’s mother (Mona Hammond) and ex-boyfriend (Charlie Creed-Miles), who Witness in vain for Jehovah; the uppity Malfens (Robert Bathurst and Geraldine James); two lesbians; one grammar-school teacher; and many noisy extras.

Have I mentioned the Nazi scientist? Or the Great Indian Mutiny? Or how much “Irie” suggests “Zadie”? White Teeth is a wild ride around the traffic circuit that is one of its visual conceits. The only film remotely like it, while not nearly as funny, is Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Mike Leigh also comes to mind, at least when he lets his people enjoy themselves even though they’re poor.

Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, Angela’s Ashes) does his hyperbolic best, as young Adolf in Hitler: The Rise of Evil, to evoke both the sociology and the mystery of a monstrous aberration that turns out to embody the hateful temper of its time and place. And as he fulminates his way to 1934, where the miniseries stops, he is accompanied by an interesting cast—Stockard Channing, far too briefly, as his mother; Matthew Modine as Fritz Gerlich, a journalist who tells the truth once too often; Julianna Margulies as swastika groupie Helene Hanfstaengl; Peter Stormare as the original storm trooper, Ernst Rohm; Jena Malone; Liev Schreiber; and, with an implausible walrus mustache, Peter O’Toole as Hindenburg. Moreover, the script has consulted such scrupulous scholars of the period as Charles S. Maier and Cornelius Schnauber, and the director, Christian Duguay, seems uncomfortably at home in the Weimar Republic even if he borrows a bit too much from Cabaret.

But we know all this from the History Channel, and the pornography was worse when the actors were all amateurs.

Great Performances 30th Anniversary: A Celebration in Song (May 7; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Channel 13) includes snippets from such warblers as Elaine Paige (“Memory”), Paul Simon (“Late in the Evening”), and Bernadette Peters (“Not a Day Goes By”). A trumped-up excuse for a sampler, but worth it if only for Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma.

Health, Wealth, and Bill Gates (May 9; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) lets the richest man in the world talk to Bill Moyers and his Now audience about public health in the global community. The surprise here is how much Gates seems to know about everything from malaria to AIDS.

Audrey’s Rain (May 11; 9 to 11 p.m.; hallmark Channel) stars Jean Smart as the miserable surrogate mother of two small children left behind by a sister who committed suicide. She has another sister who is slow and has to be watched full-time. And not even her best friend, Carol Kane, can make up for the man who got away, until he comes back, widowed.

The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (May 12; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC), adapted from Ridley Pearson’s best-selling prequel to Stephen King’s Rose Red, features Lisa Brenner as the innocent young wife of industrialist Steven Brand who will find sinister powers in every room of the new mansion.

Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites (May 14 and 21; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), the latest in public television’s Empire series, retells the story of Babylon, Egypt, Moses, David, Ezra, Alexander the Great, Judah the Maccabee, Pompeii, Zealots, and Essenes. The voices include Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois, and F. Murray Abraham.

Race—The Power of an Illusion (May 18, 19, and 20; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 21) compares the DNA of black athletes and Asian string players, explains how 85 percent of all genetic variants are present in any local population, suggests that racial myths began as rationalizations to exploit a cheap human labor supply, and looks at how American institutions apportion different advantages to people of different colors.

White Teeth
Sundays, May 11 and 18, 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.

Hitler: The Rise of Evil
Sunday, May 18, and Tuesday, May 20, 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS.

The Melting Plot