REVIEW / Spiders from mars and suburban gurus

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The Independent Culture
'YOU'RE so exotic, so original]' murmurs Eva Kay to the young Karim in the hallway of a Beckenham semi. Condescending bitch, you're supposed to think. But this is, let's face it right away, precisely the appeal of Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia for BBC 2. A little anxious about its own advancing years, determined to stay in tune with the times, it is understandably drawn to a novel which can supply both the dependable pleasures of adolescent confession and a mystery tour into relatively untrodden cultural territory.

It also fits in perfectly with the channel's current obsession with the recent past. Macrame, Trimphones, foil wallpaper, Walnut Whips, Curved Air albums, loon pants, it's all brilliantly detailed here - the hideous, lovable bric-a-brac of a decade that was so engrossed in achieving cool that it couldn't see how warmly ludicrous it was. This is the part of the series that enlists your own memories, bolstering the nostalgia with a soundtrack which combines old David Bowie hits and new David Bowie incidental music. It also preserves the central perception of the novel, which is that the Seventies were a decade in which almost everyone behaved as if they were teenagers.

The rest will be new to most viewers though - a comic collision of spiritual pretension and cultural uncertainty. 'Now my good and deep friend Haroon will show us the way, the path,' announces Eva rapturously through a haze of incense. 'Jesus Christ,' whispers Karim to Eva's son Charlie. 'Dad can't even find his way to Beckenham.' He can find his way to Mrs Kay's conservatory, though, where he noisily gives her some practical instruction in the Kama Sutra. Karim meanwhile is finding his way into his friend Charlie's jeans.

It isn't just sex he's confused about. Charlie is armoured by pretension against the agonies of youth ('Take your watch off now, you're in my domain, time isn't a factor,' he announces grandly as they climb up into the loft-conversion) but Karim is less certain, on the point of discovering that his colour is a convertible currency as well as an occasion for violence. Where his friend Jamila is trapped by cultural tradition Karim himself is at sea, not quite sure what he is.

The casting was excellent, from Roshan Seth as the civil servant turned guru (he has a wonderful little gesture in which he slaps out a pensive drum roll on his bare stomach) to Brenda Blethyn as Karim's miserable mother. As Karim, Naveen Andrews proves equal to the task of making adolescent blankness interesting - Kureishi's dry, detached characterisation doesn't offer much in the way of grand gestures beyond the odd flourish of acid wit but, even so, Andrews lets you see that there is stuff going on behind Karim's pose of dispassionate observation. This first episode is the least eventful in terms of the original novel but its witty, dry precision promises well for Karim's launch into London society.

Channel 4 is doing its bit for National Library Week by broadcasting a series of very short dramatisations of novels. The quality of the little films is very high and nicely inventive too (Edgar Allen Poe gets a German expressionist treatment, while Angela Carter is presented as a smoky vaudeville) but I'm a little sceptical about their utility myself. The principle seems to be that these fragments will whet your appetite for the real thing, but the whole exercise (which has been undertaken in collaboration with the Arts Council) has a definite smell of wishful thinking about it (for the Arts Council it may even be a case of 'We've got this money. What on earth shall we do with it?').

Is Channel 4 really the best place to trawl for non-readers and if so, what next? Full-page advertisements in the Times Literary Supplement urging illiterate 15-year- olds to attend remedial reading classes? Leaflets in Urdu, Bengali and Gujerati extolling the virtues of Greek tragedy to be given out in National Theatre intervals? Full marks for good intentions, only two for common sense.