In an upper-class Victorian boarding school, a loveable schoolboy suffers at the hands of a vicious bully and is inspired by a forward-thinking headmaster. This Masterpiece Theatre classic is a fascinating portrait of the times and a heartwarming story of courage and friendship. Though a son of privilege in a rigidly class-conscious society, Tom Brown is a born egalitarian. What he learns at the famous Rugby School is that breeding really does determine character and scoundrels exist in every part of society.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Thomas Hughes, who studied at Rugby in the 1830s under the educational reformer Dr. Thomas Arnold, this family drama stars Anthony Murphy in an Emmy®-winning debut as Tom with Iain Cuthbertson (Gorillas in the Mist) as Dr. Arnold.
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The trials and traumas of boarding school have always given British writers rich material--Tom Brown's Schooldays, based on the classic novel set in the Victorian era, is no exception. In this five-episode miniseries broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre, young Tom Brown (Anthony Murphy) leaves home for Rugby, a well-respected school in decline. His arrival coincides with the appointment of a new headmaster, Dr. Arnold (Iain Cuthbertson), who aspires to reform the school by stamping out bullying, drunkenness, and bigotry. Tom's struggle is more personal: Before his arrival, he offended a wealthy but corrupt man who commissions his equally dissolute son Gerald (Richard Morant), a senior student at Rugby, to make Tom's life miserable. Gerald schemes with relish, finally catching Tom in a trap that threatens to break the forthright boy's spirit. The story could be pure melodrama were it not for the vivid details of life in a boarding school. As the plot moves this way and that, it's always kept real by the hardships of the time (boys sleep five to a bed, younger boys act as servants to older ones), making Tom Brown's Schooldays a keen social critique as well as an engaging story. The adolescent actors are occasionally a little clumsy, but there are some inspired performances; Murphy deservedly won an Emmy. Too often a virtuous hero is a recipe for blandness, but the insightful script makes Tom clever but fallible. He refuses to mistreat those less privileged out of conscious choice, not because of some immutable goodness--the character (and the story) is more compelling as a result. --Bret Fetzer
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