By David Hiltbrand
March 27, 1995 12:00 PM

PBS (Sun., March 26, 9 p.m. ET)


Old Martin Chuzzlewit (Paul Scofield) cannot escape his ravening relatives. They are climbing over one another to lay claim to his estate. On this foundation, Charles Dickens constructed a grand comic opera, a meaty meditation on the theme of greed.

This sprawling Masterpiece Theatre treatment has a gray, claustrophobic atmosphere and a literate, languorous screenplay by British novelist David Lodge. The fact that this 5½-hour adaptation moves along at the pace of a plow horse ceases to matter after two installments. That’s how long it takes for the story’s carnival of characters to completely win you over. Personalities like those of the besotted nurse Mrs. Gamp (Elizabeth Spriggs) and the unctuous chiseler Montague Tigg (Pete Postlethwaite) are still vivid and appreciable a century after Dickens dreamed them up. The centerpiece of this tale, though, is Pecksniff (Tom Wilkinson), Chuzzlewit’s distant but insinuating relative. Pecksniff is a sanctimonious, self-seeking sort with a voice and a manner like warm milk and the soul of a reptile.