Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shane Briant on the small screen

A great actor will excel in any medium. Shane Briant earned comparisons to John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave before he’d ever stepped in front of a movie camera. It was a natural transition from the stage to the silver screen. It was also inevitable that he’d shine on the small screen.

I’ve already written about his deliciously amoral turn in the ‘Sweeney’ episode “Chalk and Cheese”, but his work for television goes beyond that highpoint in 70s drama.

Briant followed his cinema debut in ‘Straight on Till Morning’ with an episode of the long-running ‘Armchair Theatre’ entitled “Franklin’s Farm”, notable for being directed by British TV stalwart Peter Hammond (Hammond went on to direct episodes of classic series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, ‘Inspector Morse’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

A year later, Briant gave what is arguably the definitive account of Oscar Wilde’s louche but tragic anti-hero in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, directed by Glenn Jordan and also starring Nigel Davenport and Fionnula Flanagan. Niftily sidestepping the oh-so-polite costume drama elements of Albert Lewin’s lavish 1945 MGM version, and mercifully not making any of the mistakes that blight Oliver Parker’s egregious 2009 travesty, Jordan’s made-for-TV production – for all that it was a quickly made, low-budget piece – pays attention to the importance of the performance, the acid wit of Wilde’s writing and the importance of absolutely the right person in the lead role. With his debonair style, good looks and ability to conjure an ironically removed characterization, Briant was most certainly the right man for the job.

In the same year that he made his Hollywood debut alongside Paul Newman and James Mason in John Huston’s ‘The Mackintosh Man’ (a poundingly unsubtle but satisfactorily old-school adaptation of Desmond Bagley’s novel ‘The Freedom Trap’), Briant appeared in two very different but quintessentially 70s TV shows. In the ‘Crown Court’ episode “The Inner Circle”, he gave a highly memorable performance (go here and here for all the evidence, pardon the pun, you need); while in “Season for Love”, a season two episode of ‘Van der Valk’, he retains a commendable professionalism in the face of chocolate box production design and some notable scenery chewing by the show’s leading man.

1975 saw Briant appear not only in the aforementioned ‘Sweeney’ episode, but two notable TV movies: Stuart Burge’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Under Western Eyes’ and Jack Gold’s unforgettable Quentin Crisp biopic ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, in which Briant’s turn is every bit as memorable as John Hurt’s – and compliments don’t come much higher than that!

Shane Briant has remained active in film and television (most recently starring in the acclaimed Australian dramas ‘City Homicide’ and ‘Rogue Nation’) but it’s key to his enduring appeal that he put in such great work in the 70s – perhaps the key decade in TV drama.

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