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Books inspire two historical miniseries. ... and PBS finds the Dickens in `David Copperfield' [ cf. Vidal's `Lincoln' says `here's how it might have been'... ]

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David Copperfield PBS, Sundays through April 24, 9-10 p.m., check local listings. Cast: Colin Hurley, Simon Callow, Jenny McCracken, Brenda Bruce, Natalie Ogle, Valerie Grogan, Francesca Hall. Writer: James Andrew Hall from the Charles Dickens novel. Producer: Terrance Dicks. Director: Barry Letts. ``David Copperfield'' has been acclaimed since it was published in 1850 as a classic tale about the repressive Victorian society of Dickens's time.

It chronicles the development from infancy through manhood of a youth from England's emerging middle class - a figure coming of age in the midst of a culture in turmoil, ambivalent in its attitudes toward old established values and newer ones introduced by the Industrial Revolution.

Although ``David Copperfield'' has been interpreted and reinterpreted in print, it's often regarded today as a picaresque vision of a frisky but sensitive young man, tiptoeing through some rather extreme as well as normal problems of growing up. Most often, any autobiographical aspects of the novel are overlooked in a rush to describe it as merely a rousingly good piece of fictional melodrama.

This stylish ``Masterpiece Theatre'' version of ``David Copperfield,'' however, is different.

It pinpoints the time and place so vividly and concretely that David's emotional journey to self-understanding becomes almost a psychological portrait in today's terms, right down to a hint of wavering sexual identity. And the series is also notable for what it reveals about Dickens himself - elements explained by host Alistair Cooke, using Dickens's friend and biographer John Forster as a source.

Cooke's astute analyses illuminate not only the transitional society of Dickens's day but the author's own place in it. Cooke makes it clear that Dickens used the writing of ``Copperfield'' as a kind of self-cleansing, healing exercise.

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