The Ginger Tree – BBC Series

The Ginger Tree

The Ginger Tree was a unique programme in the history of television – made in 1989 it was the very first drama ever shot in HD. I have written about this in the past, when virtually no footage was available, so it’s with great interest I approached this show.

The Ginger Tree may have been shot in HD, but was never transmitted as such in the UK – mainly because there was no way of receiving the broadcast on a domestically available television set. As such the experiment was mainly as a test to see what was possible for the future (as they discovered, it made things very expensive). It’s a shame those original very high quality masters couldn’t have been tracked down to be put on Blu-ray, but I suspect it wasn’t a financially viable proposition – and the required equipment may not even exist.

So what affect does that have watching it now on DVD? Can we tell?

Sort of. As an experiment it’s very interesting. The definition is excellent – the sharpness is closer to present day digital studio daytime TV, shot on HD and viewed on DVD than any of the video based drama from the 80s you may have seen released. For something 27 years old and shot on video the interiors in The Ginger Tree in particular look spookily fresh.

Ginger Tree Screencap

Of course for a drama series this is purely academic if the show itself is no good. So how does it hold up?

Adapted by Oscar winning dramatist Christopher Hampton from the 1977 novel by Oswald Wynd, the story starts in Manchuria in 1903 just before the Russian/ Japanese war. Mary MacKenzie (Samantha Bond) a young Scottish woman has moved to the country to marry a British army officer who is preparing to support the Japanese. That officer Captain Richard Collingsworth is played by Adrian Rawlins – possibly best known these days as being Harry Potter’s dad. It turns out Collingsworth is a bit of a bastard, and as he is away so often Mary finds herself falling in love with a Japanese nobleman Count Kentaro Kurihama (Diasuke Ryû). This is where her life changes significantly.

Over the four episodes we follow Mary’s life over the next forty years. The affair means she is forced to move to Tokyo where she is automatically out of place. As wars and the world progress around her she strives against the difficult circumstance of not being welcome in the foreign land as either a Westerner or a woman. A cross of cultures and races, it is a fascinating examination of issues which are still current, but placed in an historical context.

It looks beautiful of course. As an experiment in HD an enormous mount of money was been thrown at the screen in realistic sets and costume. The performances are great too, with Samantha Bond in for specific mention. The combination of vulnerability and burgeoning strength in her character is beautifully rendered.

Alas though, it is very slow, almost as if so much consideration has been placed on the visual picture the drama and pacing has taken second place. Which is a shame, because it devalues the great work elsewhere. Whether that’s down to direction or script is difficult to pinpoint. Each episode is an hour long, and leaves us with the sense it could easily be trimmed with no real impact to the dialogue – it seems as though the visual scene setting was given undue prominence, possibly because of the cost. Maybe that’s unfair, but there’s no real urgency to the storytelling, and everything seems a little too languid.

Even so, it does look great and the performances from the entire and broadly international cast are very good too.

The Ginger Tree is out on DVD on Monday 25th April and for television historians will be a must buy.