Goodbye, Mr. Chips 1984 Series Review

Welcome to Part 2 of looking at various adaptations of Goodbye Mr. Chips and seeing how they hold up to the so-called definitive 1939 version. Today, I’ll be analyzing the 1984 television miniseries made by the BBC starring Roy Marsden (best known for playing Adam Dalgliesh in the Anglia Television adaptations of the P.D. James’s detective novels) as the titular character.

The 1984 version has 6 episodes overall, and each of them run for 25-30 minutes. It’s clear that series director Gareth Davies wanted the adaptation to be more faithful than the 1939 one because it includes more scenes as presented from the novella, while adding some original scenes to enhance the story. One subplot that’s omitted from both the 1939 and 1969 adaptations is the one in which Catherine convinces Mr. Chips and the headmaster to invite boys from the slums to play a game of soccer (oh sorry, football) against the Brookfield students. I have a feeling that this was added to show the impact that Catherine had on the school. The other noted scene is how Chips meets his love for the first time. I talk about how this went down in my review of the black-and-white version, so long story short: Chips is walking in the mountains in England, and he sees a woman waving and shouting, so he climbs up, intending to rescue her and proceeds to sprain his ankle. This is presented as such in the 1984 version. It took three adaptations of the story to display that crucial moment in its original form.

As mentioned earlier, there are scenes not present in the book that are in the show. In the sixth and final episode, when the Great War is going on, a student reveals that he doesn’t want to fight even though he has already enlisted. He claims that seeing his father’s wounded body and talking to a battered soldier at the hospital convinced him that the war was not worth fighting for. Mr. Chips tries to persuade the boy that it’s his duty to fight. The student refuses, so he gets arrested for being a deserter. I wouldn’t be surprised that this scene was added since the show couldn’t do the bombing sequence from novella due to its low budget. This sequence brings an anti-war message to the story, but I’m not sure if it’s necessary. During the Great War section of the novella, Hilton makes it clear that it’s best to carry on regardless of the present situation. Instead of displaying that kind of duty, it shows that one is better off listening to Chips. 

Another scene not in the book is in episode 3, where Catherine and Mrs. Wickett take care of an ill student. During a bit of the previous one, there was some tension between the women as they try to get used to the new arrangement after Chips marries Catherine. Catherine tries to make her mark with the house that she and Mr. Chips live in and to improve the boys’ welfare, but Mrs. Wickett has her own ways of doing things. Once they find out about a sick boy living in the dorm that Chips is the housemaster of, they band together to help him get well. 

Having this scene in the series makes sense, for both Mrs. Wickett and Catherine are expanded from the book and previous movies. In the previous adaptations and the novella, all Mrs. Wickett does is serve Mr. Chips tea and remind him of what the doctor said. In the BBC television miniseries, she is the first person that Chips gives advice to after she – a maid at the time – tells him of her plans to run away. Because this happens on his humiliatingly first day of teaching, Chips and Mrs. Wickett form a bond that lasts until the former’s death. There are even times in which Ann Kristen – the actress playing Mrs. Wickett – gives off looks that signify that Wickett may have certain feelings for Chips, but there’s no real payoff to that. I’m not sure if it was all that crucial to enlarge her role, but it enforces her symbolism of the lasting impact Chips has on Brookfield.

With Catherine, her role is more active in this version. Jill Meager’s interpretation of the character is closer to her counterpart in the novella. Catherine is youthful and wants to make a difference at Brookfield. I wouldn’t be surprised if Meager went to the Charlton Heston School of Teeth Acting, for she shows off her teeth a lot. Regardless, that gesture simply adds more charm and spry to Catherine’s character. In addition, the miniseries plays more into Catherine’s beliefs. There are several scenes in episodes 2 and 3, in which she and Chips discuss world events and trends that showcase how different they think. Moreover, this version even addresses the question I often had with the novella and the 1939 and 1969 adaptations: what does Catherine see in Chips? In episode 2, her friend asks Catherine about this, and Catherine replies that he’s great to talk to and at listening even if he drives her mad with his old-fashioned ways.

Since we’re talking about performances now, I can’t avoid discussing Roy Marsden as the title character. His interpretation is more somber than the previous actors, but his Chips has the sternness of the Peter O’Toole one and some of the warmth of Robert Donat’s. In other words, Marsden’s portrayal is the closest to the one in the novella. Much like O’Toole, his emotional growth is more gradual. This makes sense as the miniseries gives Chips more time to reflect on the actions and relationships he made and they impacted him. Additionally, I have to mention the physical transformation. When Mr. Chips is younger, Marsden is seen with a brown mustache that’s similar to Donat’s in the black and white version but less ridiculous. He also looks like the Count of Monroth from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge just with more forehead. Luckily, it wasn’t distracting because he appropriately resembled a 40-year-old English schoolmaster. I can’t say the exact same thing when Chips gets older. Although various camera angles hide the fact that Marsden is wearing a bald cap with pieces of hair on his sides well, there are times where viewers can spot the bald cap. Additionally, the makeup was caked onto him, especially around the eyes to make him look older. I haven’t seen that much makeup to transform an actor into an old person since Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

Young-ish Mr. Chips with his giant forehead
Middle-age Mr. Chips with teethy Catherine
Older Mr. Chips with Max Staefel in the background
Oldest Mr. Chips with Mrs. Wickett

The makeup is part of the bigger problem with this version, which is the budget. Before I explain, I want to make one thing clear: a movie or a television series can have a low budget, but still be creative in telling the story. When watching this, it’s clear that they had to cut corners in translating it to the screen. This explains why miniseries couldn’t do the bombing scene in the novella and do the makeup effectively as mentioned earlier. Additionally, they couldn’t afford many child actors since only up to 30 appear in one scene at a time. Since the core relationship is between Mr. Chips and the students, scenes like the retirement speech are less impactful, for Chips is seen giving this to the teaching staff, not the boys. It’s most apparent when there were outdoor sequences when lots of students are present that I swear were taken from the 1969 version. The miniseries was a collaboration between the BBC and MGM, and that latter company produced both the 1939 and 1969 adaptations, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. 

If the budgeting is the weakest aspect of the BBC miniseries, then the framework of the show is the strongest. Each episode begins and ends (sans the last one) with an old Mr. Chips writing his book and looking back on his actions and relationships. This is a great idea because he had talked about doing this in the novella and the previous adaptations, yet he never did. This also successfully justifies why he’s in such a reflective mood and going through each part of his life in a linear form. As much as I really like the 1939 version, it explains why Chips recalls his early teaching days (due to the new teacher at Brookfield), but not the rest. The framework of Mr. Chips writing his memoir helps explain why he’s willing to analyze each episode of his life.

To summarize, the Goodbye Mr. Chips 1984 miniseries works in some ways, but not in others. The miniseries format allows it to be more faithful to the source material. Certain expansions aren’t always necessary, but they don’t hurt the story. Obviously, the people involved had to cut corners, and it shows because it makes specific elements less effective. Despite all this, the framework is the best part of the miniseries. Like with the 1969 adaptation, I can see why viewers might like it, especially with Roy Marsden’s performance and if this one is the first version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips they’ve ever seen. I would recommend it for those like Roys Marsden and want to see every version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (like myself). If you would like to check it out yourself, click on this link.

Stay tuned next month for the final part when I review the 2002 television movie produced by Masterpiece Theatre!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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