The honour of being the first adaptation of a classic work of literature featured at TV Minus 50 falls to this BBC version of Alexandre Dumas' classic tale of remorseless vengeance. It's got a reputation as the best screen adaptation of the book, partly because its length - 12 half hour episodes - allows it to cover more of the gargantuan tome than shorter versions, but also because it's a sterling example of the sort of thing the BBC's historically been best at. It's got a solid adapter (Anthony Steven, whose long and distinguished career in TV has now largely been forgotten, his name associated almost solely with his one shot at writing for Doctor Who, in the 1980s - an adventure regularly nominated as the worst in the programme's history), a brilliant director (Avengers wunderkind Peter Hammond), and a truly first-rate cast.
Heading that cast in the lead role of Edmond Dantés is Alan Badel, whose forbidding countenance makes an impression straight away in the show's highly dramatic opening titles.
The first performer we see in the show proper is Michael Bilton, who in old age would become a fondly regarded star of sitcoms and Yellow Pages adverts. Here he plays Coclés, clerk to merchant Monsieur Morrel (Anthony Newlands), and he's come to announce the return from foreign shores of Morrel's ship the Pharaon. There's sad news, though: Leclere, the Pharaon's aged captain, died during the voyage, leaving young first mate Edmond Dantés in command.
Here's our first glimpse of Badel as the young Edmond, shot from one of Hammond's trademark interesting angles (one, it must be said, that isn't overly flattering). Dantés ages significantly over the course of Dumas' story, and the 40-year old Badel's been cast from towards the latter end of the scale. But although he might not look like a man in his 20s, he gives an endearingly puppyish performance full of youthful joie de vivre.
Among Edmond's crew was Monsieur Morrel's supercargo (look it up if you don't know what it is - I had to), Danglars (it's not pronounced like that), played by the wonderfully saturnine Morris Perry. We can tell from the off that Danglars is a bad sort, just because Mr Perry looks like a malevolent elf. Clearly jealous that Morrel thinks the soleil shines out of Edmond's derriére (that is your actual French), Danglars tries to drop Dantés in it by telling the shipowner all about an unscheduled stop he made at the island of Elba, for no reason, Danglar suggests, other than to sun himself.
Queried by Morrel about the trip to Elba, Dantés reveals that he went there in accordance with Captain Leclere's last request, that he take a package to one Marshal Bertrand, a lieutenant of the exiled Napoleon. Fortunately, Morrel's loyal to the former emperor, and is happy to hear from Edmond (who briefly met Napoleon during his visit) that he's doing well - though he warns Edmond to keep schtum about the reason for the stop as it could get him into all sorts of bother. Anyway, satisfied by the reason for the unscheduled detour, Morrel promotes Edmond to captain - which will help speed up his plans to marry his betrothed, the beautiful Mercedes.
Talk of Mercedes brings us to the lady herself, played by Natasha Parry. Despite her intention to marry Edmond, her cousin Fernand (Philip Madoc) is pressuring her into taking him for her husband instead: their family are Catalans, to whom, we're told, intermarriage is practically sacred. Their row's filmed by Hammond from a number of unusual angles, culminating in Mercedes' reunion with Edmond, filmed in reflection.
Fernand swears to kill his rival, and is later seen drowning his sorrows in the company of friends: Danglars we've already met, and we know he hates Edmond, but also present is the permanently wrecked Caderousse (Michael Robbins), who professes himself a good chum of the new captain.
Danglars convinces Fernand that rather than killing Edmond the best thing would be to remove him from the scene - with him out of the way Mercedes is bound to succumb to her cousin's overtures eventually. Fernand is inveigled into Danglars' plot to expose Edmond's visit to Napoleon with an anonymous denunciation (the nonchalant way Morris Perry puts his pen behind his ear after writing the missive that will destroy Edmond's life is tremendous).
To placate Caderousse, Danglars makes out the whole thing was a joke and chucks away the letter, but it's clear he's planted a seed in Fernand's jealous mind - one which rapidly starts sprouting when Edmond and Mercedes appear to invite everyone to their wedding feast.
Caderousse knows there was something he had to warn Edmond about, but he's too drunk to remember what it is. As Danglars looks after him, Fernand hastens to recover the discarded denunciation of Edmond (Philip Madoc giving one of the best snarls I've ever seen on TV)...
Top class stuff. Next week we learn what Fernand does next, and the cast gets even more interesting.