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`Tender Is the Night' -- a splendid cable miniseries

The most exquisite miniseries since ``Brideshead Revisited'' is coming to television next week, but only about 10 million fortunate households will be able to see it. Showtime, the second-largest pay cable system in the country after HBO, is presenting F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz-age classic, Tender Is the Night, starting Sunday, Oct. 27, for two hours and then for four additional hours on consecutive Tuesdays throughout November.

This sensitive six-hour miniseries, produced by the BBC, stars American actors Peter Strauss and Mary Steenburgen in brilliant interpretations of Dick and Nicole Diver. It is gloriously photographed in authentic locations throughout Paris, the south of France, and Switzerland.

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With smaller parts played by Edward Asner, Piper Laurie, and John Heard, this electronic echo of the lives of a glamorous tribe of 1920s expatriates is worth maneuvering to see.

Adapted from the Fitzgerald novel by Dennis Potter (author of the British cult success ``Pennies From Heaven''), this version of ``Tender Is the Night'' does not follow the chronology of the published book but rearranges scenes as Fitzgerald himself is on record as having wished to do. So from the very start the viewer is aware of the roots of Nicole's madness. Thus the tortured romance between the wealthy disturbed woman and her ambitious psychiatrist is understandable from the start. Soon the obsessiv e relationship develops on screen into a kind of slow-motion dance of death, migrating seasonally from Gstaad to Cape Ferat to Paris and back, heroes becoming villains, villains emerging as heroes, love turning to hate, strength evolving into weakness and vice versa.

``Tender'' is far from perfect. It takes a bit of time before Mary Steenburgen is in total control of her role, but then she really becomes Nicole, body and soul. John Heard is never really believable as a gifted alcoholic, and some minor roles are too much caricature. There is also a sense of meandering that does not become meaningful till the viewer is caught up in the rhythm.

But then there is that admirable British knack for assuming the viewer possesses some degree of intelligence and allowing him to infer subtleties, as again and again director Rob Knight substitutes a meaningful glance for a line of obvious dialogue. And Peter Strauss is simply superb as Dick Diver, portraying impeccably a man who needs to be needed, a seemingly controlled person who seethes within and whose eventual loss of control boils to the surface when his wife needs him no more.

Scott Fitzgerald has put a bit of himself into all the male characters and a great deal of his wife, Zelda, into the character of Nicole.

Amazingly, the BBC has been able to catch most of the American and American-expatriate nuances. Somehow ``Tender'' manages to cross over the line between BBC literary drama and American pop drama. It is an amalgam of the best of both.

As of press time, there are no definite plans to air ``Tender Is the Night'' beyond November on Showtime. But it is an inevitable candidate for PBS's ``Great Performances'' or ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' especially if viewers write in and demand it. But do try to see it, because if you miss it, you will be missing one of the great treats of the 1985-86 season -- or any season, for that matter.

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