REVIEW / All the biggest names fall on Hard Times

Click to follow
FACT: Charles Dickens completed 14 novels. Fact: it is quicker to list the ones the BBC has not adapted. Fact: all but one of them were written in serial form. Fact: Hard Times is the one that wasn't.

Dickens' briefest novel might have been written to answer the special needs of BBC Education, which is screening its four-part dramatisation in the English File (BBC 2) slot at midday (though it will be aired in the evening later this year). For a start, it is the first great English novel about school. It is formulaic and neat, the closest Dickens got to writing with the help of diagrams. Also, its brevity helps put a brake on the budget (Middlemarch, the new bench-mark for costume drama, cost 10 times as much). So does the location of almost the entire plot in Spartan interiors; even Mr Sleary's circus, the lone beacon of fantasy in a utilitarian world boxed-up into facts and figures, is a simple matter of slinging up a bit of stripy canvas and roping in a horse, while getting a shot of Coketown's chimneys was a simple matter of filming an unmodernised street in one of Lancashire's cotton-mill towns.

Lastly, any novel that argues about the educational curriculum is not short of modern relevance. The major outlay seems to have gone on actors; the cast is considerably more stellar than that of Middlemarch. They're needed, because the problem with Hard Times is that, although Dickens' caricatures are as extreme as usual, they are caricatures of joylessness. To play dull without being dull is a skill possessed by few.

Hence the screen is awash with stars working overtime. Bob Peck does his wild-eyed act as the ideologue Gradgrind, while Alan Bates, the self-made banker and latent pederast Bounderby, drones on as only he can. Bill Paterson and Harriet Walter take the thankless heartwringing parts of the disenfranchised workers Stephen Blackpool and Rachel. Richard E Grant will crop up next week as the predatory politician Harthouse, as will Beatie Edney as the joyless Louisa Gradgrind and Alex Jennings as Bitzer, the clerk on the make. If you put that lot in a West End theatre, the show would run, run and run, and that's a fact.

While we're on fact, in any other novel but this it would be churlish to quibble over niceties, but in the text Bounderby is bald and ugly, while Bates is hirsute and handsome, and Mr Sleary's lisp, the mark Dickens gives him to denote imperfection, seems to have been cured. BBC 2's students will doubtless notice, so it's as well to pre-empt the mailbag.

In every other respect, the adaptation by Peter Barnes, who was at his flabbiest in the thematically similar Enchanted April, takes Gradgrind at his word. Each scene is a model of economy that tells you what you need to know, then stops - no frills, no fancy, just the bare essentials.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: May to December (BBC 1), a sitcom reliant on gap gags. At the last count we were laughing about the generation gap, the class gap and, with the introduction of a new character from the Highlands, the Watford gap. Alec's second wife Zoe is as young as his two children, and from the other side of the tracks. Her mother Dot and sister Debbie run a fruit'n'veg'n'

flower shop, while he and his son Jamie are partners in a law firm. The whole thing is set in Pinner, an outreach of the metropolis with genteel aspirations and a name that has always had comic mileage.

As the script is from a different source every week, May to December has a homogenised feel about it, as if the writer is given a set of instructions along with the blank bit of paper: here's what you can joke about, now plot a line through it. Last night's episode, written by Paul Minett and Brian Leveson, found Alec (Anton Rodgers) and Zoe (Lesley Dunlop) rebuffing the services of his bossyboots daughter Simone (Carolyn Pickles) and advertising for a nanny. They ended up at a posh nanny's agent who might have goose stepped out of the pages of Hard Times. Even the common-as-muck English comedy has a grand family tree.