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`Strangers and Brothers' portrays private sorrow, public posture

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For many readers C. P. Snow's novels are an acquired taste which turns out to be habit-forming. Snow, a British scientist-civil servant wrote books as a spare-time hobby -- 11 novels make up the sequence upon which the seven-part Masterpiece Theatre series, Strangers and Brothers (PBS, seven Sundays starting May 5, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) is based. Warning: The TV series can be as compelling as the novels themselves.

The fictional hero of the series is Lewis Eliot, a man whose career parallels Snow's in many respects, except for the recreational novel writing. The original novels take Lewis from around 1927 through the '60s, although not in chronological order. But this series reshuffles the events into chronological order, from 1927 through 1941. Lewis moves from Cambridge to London, where he becomes a barrister, then back to a combination of academia and civil service, finally ending up in a top-level governmental position during World War II, juggling career, marriage, friendships.

Lewis marries a woman who doesn't love him and anguishes his way through a long, unsatisfying marriage, finally coming to the realization that it is the lone, remote stranger within himself that is preventing him from enjoying any complete relationship. The disturbed, nonloving woman he chose suits him well, he discovers too late, since he is incapable of giving much more himself, although he fools himself and others into believing otherwise. As one character describes him: ``Lewis gets all of the anguish and none of the fun'' out of life.

Subtly directed by Ronald Wilson and Jeremy Summers, subtly acted by an impeccable cast including Shaughan Seymour, Sheila Ruskin, and Nigel Havers, from an even more subtle adaptation by Julian Bond, this BBC/WGBH series is so subtle that viewers may find it slipping away from them in its sometimes maddening vagueness. More than most Masterpiece Theatre series, it needs the guiding hand -- and words -- of Alistaire Cook to clarify some of the gaps in story line necessitated by the truncation from 11 novels to seven hours.

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