Russell Baker on My Uncle Silas
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as selected commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
My Uncle Silas II
The stories we are about to see take us back, oh, about 100 years -- to a mythically peaceable England that supposedly existed before the first world war. It certainly seemed sweet and peaceable to H.E. Bates when he looked back at it and wrote these stories.
Bates was a successful author of popular novels and short stories in the mid-20th century. But his Uncle Silas stories were an unusual blend of humor and fictionalized memoir. They purport to be memories of his early boyhood adventures with an old reprobate whose charm is irresistible, even when he is drunk, lying, cheating to win a bet, or seducing a neighbor's wife.
Bates did have a great-uncle Joe in his life who would have been well into his 60s when Bates was a boy visiting him in the country. Uncle Joe may actually have been the charming rascal Bates called Uncle Silas. On the other hand, let's keep in mind that Bates was a fiction writer, and for a storyteller, the artistic lie is always preferable to the inartistic truth.
There are five stories in tonight's program, and our first is titled "Shandy Lil." It may help to know that shandy is a British drink that mixes beer and lemonade.
Now, My Uncle Silas.
Albert Finney first caught the attention of American audiences in the movie version of the classic English novel Tom Jones. That was in 1963. I saw the movie again recently. Finney, looking about 18 years old, played a high-spirited young rascal who wandered around a beautiful, unspoiled English countryside, stumbling into adventures that were both comic and carnal.
In the Uncle Silas stories, Finney, wearing the wrinkles and heft a man acquires with the passage of 40 years, plays a high-spirited OLD rascal who wanders around a beautiful, unspoiled English countryside.
Forty years after the making of Tom Jones, Finney seems to see Uncle Silas as the man Tom Jones would have grown into with the passing years.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
My Uncle Silas I
Tonight we begin a group of stories, starring Albert Finney, about an aging rogue male who gets more pleasure out of life than a man of advanced years is supposed to. A disapproving relative describes him as a drunkard, a sinner, a nonconformist and a lecher. But to his 10-year-old grand-nephew he becomes a heroic figure -- the man who teaches him that life is for living with gusto and with an appetite for getting into trouble.
The show is adapted from the My Uncle Silas stories of H.E. Bates, and it has the quality of a boyhood memoir. Silas is seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old, and so he seems larger than life.
If some incidents seem a bit far-fetched, we have to keep in mind that a 10-year-old boy is apt to be gullible about stories he hears from a man he idolizes.
Our setting is rural England in those peaceful years just before the first World War. Silas's son Abel is about to be married and relatives are arriving for the festivities. Among them is Silas's grand-nephew Edward who is going to stay on with him through the summer. Silas has spent the morning courting trouble.
Our author is H.E. Bates. Long-time fans of Masterpiece Theatre will remember his Love for Lydia, which we presented in some 12 installments back in 1979. Bates was a highly successful novelist whose World War II books like The Jacaranda Tree and Fair Stood the Wind for France sold worldwide. But he was probably better known for his short stories which Graham Greene ranked with those of de Maupassant and Chekov.
Bates based the character of Uncle Silas on his own great-uncle Joe whom he often visited when he was a child. Uncle Joe was born in the early days of Queen Victoria's reign, when there was still considerable gaiety in English life, and he lived to the age of 93.
He would have been well into his sixties when Bates was a 10-year-old. When he turned Uncle Joe into Uncle Silas he created a character who seemed rooted in that gayer, more carefree England that had faded as Victorian propriety took over.
"He was as lively and restless as a young colt," Bates wrote. "Reprobate, rapscallion, crafty as a monkey, liar, gardener of much cunning, drinker of infinite capacity, there was no strain of the Puritan in him. He still kept alive within him some gay, devilish spark of audacity which made him attractive to the ladies."
Even to ladies dying of consumption, if Uncle Silas can be believed. Which I leave for you to decide.
I'm Russell Baker. Goodnight.
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