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Titmuss returns to 'Masterpiece Theatre'


Thank goodness there is an England. The art of social skewering is so much more finely honed over there, as demonstrated by a new three-part sequence of the PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre."

Indeed, the subtle satire of "Titmuss Regained," premiering at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Maryland Public Television, has relevance to this side of the pond, too.

David Threlfall returns as the commoner-become-politician Leslie Titmuss of "Paradise Postponed," a series that ran on "Masterpiece Theatre" five years ago. In that story (like this one by John Mortimer, who also wrote "Rumpole of the Bailey"), the youth of poor means surprisingly inherited a fortune and joined the Conservative Party, seeking to escape his social class.

As the new series opens he has done exceedingly well, serving as a Cabinet minister over housing, ecological affairs and planning. The acronym alone sets the witty tone: HEAP.

In the first episode, Titmuss aggressively courts a socially well-placed widow (Kristin Scott Thomas), as the plot elements fall into place for a possible change of character.

It seems the tranquil slice of English countryside in which Titmuss spent a miserable, hard-working childhood is slated for development. A staunch believer in free market policies, he does not much care, finding those who campaign to save open spaces hypocritical wealthy people with landed estates.

When some figures from the past approach him to use his influence to stop the development, he is vengefully disdainful. And the show is not entirely respectful to the environmental activists, either, who come across as somewhat simple.

"We need to speak for the dumb creatures," says the eccentric proprietor of a nature preserve, as the camera pulls back to show the rallying nature lovers themselves.

But Titmuss is also a shrewd politician, as he notes to an ambitious deputy minister, "There are plenty of votes in whales" (as in save-the-whales activists).

Egad! He may also be genuinely falling in love with the widow Sidonia, who is helping smooth the corners of his commoner past.

They go to the opera, for example, and Titmuss exclaims, "It has a good story. The music hardly gets in the way at all."

Yet she is also having difficulty explaining her attraction to "that awful little politician," as a friend refers to Titmuss.

It is all very droll, with a P. G. Wodehouse flavor, yet rings true of real human behavior in a way that stateside TV rarely accomplishes.

And it is hard not to like a show in which a pair of lovers frolicking in the splendor of the good green country preserve are interrupted and told, " 'Ere, 'ere, this place is reserved for nature."

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