The Barchester Chronicles (1982), based on The Warden and Barchester Towers, is one of the great BBC costume dramas. It has the kind of cast which makes you think there must be some serious script deficiency to compensate for, but Donald Pleasence, Nigel Hawthorne, Geraldine McEwan and Alan Rickman have plenty to work with, and they work it well. Pleasence in particular inhabits the character of Septimus Harding (the warden of the novel’s title) to the extent that he hardly seems to be acting at all: his manner, calm but scarcely collected, proud but shy, draws in the viewer through its outward frailty and its implied inner strength. He fiddles with his glasses, stumbles over his words and makes wild weird gesticulations during times of animated debate. It is clear from The Warden (and, others say, from the TV series too) that these hand movements are meant to denote that Harding is imagining himself to be playing a cello, working his way into the practical and disagreeable discussions in which he feels himself compelled to take a stand, by retreating into his own preferred mode of solipsism. The interior clashes with the exterior. I preferred these movements when I didn’t know what they were, they seemed so fantastically strange; all the same, one of the most beautiful sentences in the novel is:
Mr Harding, seated in his chair, began to play a slow tune on an imaginary violincello. (p. 166)
This occurs during a tense meeting with Sir Abraham Haphazard, the great lawyer hired by Dr Grantly on Harding’s behalf, in order to rebut the claims of John Bold and Tom Towers (there are no subtle names here) that his position as warden of Hiram’s Hospital is untenable. Hiram’s Hospital is an alms-house established in John Hiram’s 1434 will, ‘for the support of twelve superannuated wool-carders, all of whom should have been born and bred and spent their days in Barchester’ (p. 2). It has survived into the nineteenth century – prospered, too, and the income of its warden (the bulk of the income from Hiram’s estate) has risen to £800 a year, whilst the old men in the alms-house get board, lodging and one shilling and fourpence per day. The conflict in the novel is between Septimus Harding’s lovable character, and the exorbitant income he takes from what is essentially a charity.
And yet this isn’t quite it. The story is at least as much about how this conflict is argued in public, as it is about the rights and wrongs of it. The press, as represented by The Jupiter and Tom Towers, argue that the warden’s money should belong to the old men of the hospital. They have a strong case for this: the whole point of Hiram’s Hospital is to give comfort in retirement to poor men who have lived hard working lives. It is clearly unfair that, as Hiram’s estate grew more wealthy, the warden should be the sole beneficiary. The unfairness, though, is not the reason that the point is made, and the action brought. Vested interests are everywhere: Finney, John Bold’s attourney in Barchester, has a name and money to make, and he calculates that the easiest way to make a big fuss is to put it to the old men that it is their right to expect £100 a year from Hiram’s bequest. The move has ‘tabloid’ written all over it. The men are split into factions; their greed and their newly discovered sense of the injustice of the charity that has been done to them are perfect fuel for the press’s fire. The press themselves have it in for the Church as a whole, there being many similar cases of ministers being overpaid – which is probably unjust, and which definitely sells papers.
The other faction in the case, magnificently represented by Dr Grantly (Nigel Hawthorne in the TV series), is the Church. Grantly is Harding’s staunchest defender, and his reasons for this are, firstly, that the Church is inviolable, and secondly that he is Harding’s friend. The morality of the case (at least of its specifics) never enters his head. The similarity between Dr Grantly and Hawthorne’s better known performance as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister is striking. Both have an unshakable faith in the organisation which will see them comfortably through life, and neither will tolerate the idea of change. They are so involved in the Church, and in the Civil Service, that they cannot step back to ask what their organisations are for. They are for Dr Grantly and Sir Humphrey; therefore Dr Grantly and Sir Humphrey must be against anything that threatens them, and indifferent to anything that is outside their sphere. But the need to defend requires knowledge of the enemy: Dr Grantly knows precisely what to conceal from Mr Harding when he presents him with Sir Abraham Haphazard’s long-sought legal opinion, even if he doesn’t quite know how to do it:
[Dr Grantly] said he had not – that was to say he had – that was, he had not seen the opinion himself; he had seen what had been called a copy, but he could not say whether of a whole or of a part; nor could he say that what he had seen were the ipsissima verba of the great man himself; but what he had seen contained exactly the decision which he had announced, and which he again declared to be to his mind extremely satisfactory. (pp. 82-3)
If the structure of The Warden is supplied by these immovable factions, its heart is to be found in the characters who change their minds. First amongst these is Mr Harding, who is as blind to partisanship as Grantly and Towers are to morality. Once it has been suggested that his income is excessive, he starts to believe it, and comes to the painful conclusion that he must give it up. John Bold, too, who initiated the suit against Harding, comes to realise what a terrible thing he has done (in personal terms) only when events have escalated beyond his control. But this about face doesn’t resolve anything: Harding’s position is untenable, and yet his departure is the worst possible outcome for the hospital. The Church does not distribute livings in an organised or a fair way, and yet it does have good people within it. The Warden reads like a parable but doesn’t offer any simple conclusions.