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Series focuses on stage veterans

Great Performances: The Ebony Tower PBS, Friday, 9-10:30 p.m. Stars Laurence Olivier, Greta Scacchi, Roger Rees, and Toyah Willcox. Writer: John Mortimer, from the John Fowles novel. Director: Robert Knight. Producer: Roy Roberts for Granada Television. ``Great Performances'' has made a rather condescending miscalculation in describing its programming for the next three weeks. ``The Golden Years'' is a three-part special series designed to demonstrate that five particular British performers, ``despite their ages'' (to quote the official description of the series), ``are now at the peak of their distinguished acting careers.''

They are Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Leo McKern, Jean Simmons, and Mona Washburn.

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All of these people, of varied maturity, are fine actors, and it is insulting to classify them by age like horses. They should not have to prove that they have ``overcome'' the ``disability'' of experience. A good role is all any of them needs to prove his or her worth, and, unless they compete with Methuselah in the ``Guinness Book of Records,'' they ought to be judged solely on the their performances, regardless of their chronological age.

Using that criterion, Lord Olivier comes through with flying colors in the series premi`ere, ``The Ebony Tower.''

Adapted by John Mortimer from the John Fowles novel, it concerns a famous, cantankerous, idiosyncratic British painter named Henry Breasley. He has retired to an estate in Brittany, but is still painting representational art, railing against ``newfangled'' forms of abstract art, and yearning for some sort of congress, sexual or otherwise, with the two young women he chooses to be near him. (One of them, by the way, is played by British rock star Toyah Willcox.)

When visited by a young painter-interviewer (played by David Rees, whom you may recall as Nicholas Nickleby), the wine flows, and Breasley cannot prevent his anxieties, resentments, and insecurities from flowing freely, revealingly, and sadly as well.

The interviewer, himself one of the disdained abstract painters, learns more than he wants to know about the painter, his peculiar m'enage, and himself. The young man tries, unsuccessfully, to substitute himself for the older man in a relationship with one of the women.

``The Ebony Tower'' is, in its own way, a mystical drama that concerns itself with the multileveled human consciousness, the variations between surface appearance and reality.

Only one thing is obvious in the whole drama: the landscape. It is a beautiful region of France - not Brittany, but still authentically the landscape an English expatriate might choose in order to live out his fantasies.

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Olivier plays the painter with a brilliant blend of childlike innocence and calculating guile, and with a flicker of fire. When the program ends, one knows all the characters well, but still not completely. There are mysterious, unreachable crevices in each.

``The Ebony Tower'' would be a uniquely unsatisfying experience in life even as it is a peculiarly satisfying experience in theater.

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