TELEVISION / By George, I think they've got it

'HE WAS simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all.' No, not Kenneth Clarke defending Tim Yeo on Question Time (although, dear viewer, he had it nearly word for word), but George Eliot defending Mr Bulstrode, the banker in Middlemarch in 1871. Nothing like one of those nice BBC classic serials to take you back to basics, is there?

Two types of people will be watching Middlemarch (BBC2), Andrew Davies's six-part adaptation of Eliot's great novel. There will be those who have never read it but might be persuaded to do so by the pictures, and then there will be the appalling bunch who have read it so often they think they wrote it. The latter will be constantly exclaiming, 'That's never our Fred Vincy', as a perfectly plausible young actor gallops past. Your critic falls firmly into the appalling category and had been looking forward to this serial in the way she might look forward to major surgery. You wince to see a scalpel, even one wielded by master surgeon Davies, carving up the thing you love. The BBC's most recent going-over of a literary masterpiece, after all, left Scarlet and Black looking black and blue. But, during Wednesday's opening episode, the dread ebbed away: the moment that Michael Hordern's Mr Featherstone grumbled along to 'Home Sweet Home' one bar and several semitones out, wearing a wig you could scrub pigs with, it was clear that everything was going to be just dandy.

Davies has made great TV out of goodish novels - The Old Devils, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes - but Middlemarch, a swarming study of 19th-

century provincial life, poses problems of a higher order - what you might call the prose and cons. Eliot started a story about Lydgate, an idealistic doctor, but faltered and began another about Dorothea who, faced with the classic dilemma of bright young women (big mind, small town), marries Casaubon under the impression that he is the tree of knowledge, but soon discovers him to be an old stick. Both stories were eventually combined, but the hero and heroine remained separate: the novel was like a beast with a double heart, a planet with two suns. You wait and wait for them to enter each other's orbit, for Dorothea to find Lydgate. But she never does (if I were Davies, I would have been tempted to say 'Bugger it]' and pair them off, thus correcting one of the itchiest frustrations in all fiction). Characters are left with their ideals leaking away, their souls corroding like damp batteries. Over and over, Eliot tells us that this is life, that our actions are shackles.

If it is hard for the adapter to deal with the two plots (Davies cleverly yokes them together from the start), it is harder still to make up for the loss of the author's voice. When Dorothea cries on honeymoon, the narrator tells us we mustn't take her upset too badly because: 'If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and . . . we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.' A little disingenuous, by George. Eliot's brain had no wadding at all; sharp as a tack, it pinned things down like a lepidopterist. The question is, can Davies and director Anthony Page make good the loss, can they suffuse what's left with her presiding intelligence?

The opening minutes didn't look that promising: arriving in town, Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) gestures to a new railway and exclaims 'The future]' for the benefit of viewers who think the Industrial Revolution is a heavy-metal band. In the market, regulation BBC yokels holler about tasty Middlemarch pies. Page is taking no chances with the BBC's pounds 6m. His camera is well-mannered, taking its place politely at a dinner party. It does nothing to offend, although Eliot's theme - the stunted conditions society imposes on men and women who try to walk tall - tells us that the world itself is offensive. Directors Stephen Frears (in Dangerous Liaisons) and Martin Scorsese (in his forthcoming film of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence) have both found techniques that enable them to be suspicious about the past. Middlemarch, on the other hand, seems rather snug in its heritage view of history; the big scenes feel shrunken, as if the period can be reduced to a set of social mannerisms.

Once the camera got in close, things widened out. The actors are so good their faces are all the landscape you need: Robert Hardy's genial means-well-does-nothing Mr Brooke tells us everything about the society that made him. Hodge, who has that rare ability to make nobility interesting, is a fine Lydgate: in the scene where he first betrayed his principles he turned a queasy green and his eyes were wide with stricken goodness. Juliet Aubrey equals him as Dorothea: her soft beauty cushions the character's priggishness and her features register subtle shifts of emotion with astonishing mobility - she's going to need all of it in the weeks to come. Trevyn McDowell's Rosamond is shaping up to be a terrific minx, and Patrick Malahide's Casaubon already looks like the ghostly foreshadowing of his wife's death-in-life.

Elsewhere fiction was playing a poor second to life. Under the Hammer (ITV), John Mortimer's light drama about an auction house is heavily implausible. You could hardly believe the true story in Auction (BBC2) this week, either, but it was much more fun. Jenny Rivarola's compelling but stagey series on Sotheby's (she should only use captions when pictures fail her) featured the sale of the contents of Dr Gerry Moore's country house. The fly on the wall had a terrific time with the fly in the ointment, Gerry himself, who was determined that his own vast abstract canvases should feature prominently in the sale and launch him on a well-deserved international career. We watched as Gerry, a man unburdened by false modesty or, indeed, any of the real kind, talked Sotheby's Dendy Easton through some of his more ambitious works. The look on Dendy's face when he saw 'Big Mac' - a painting that Gerry explained was a Dejeuner sur l'herbe for nos jours - reminded me of the expressions in Lot 505: 'Stuffed squirrels enacting a tableau from the Boer war'.

Stretching the boundaries of good taste to twanging-point once again, 40 Minutes (BBC2) brought us the story of Caraline who carefully maintains her weight at three-and-a-half stone by forcing down pounds 25 of food a day and then bringing it back up. At 29, she looked uncannily like the Croatian crone just seen on the news - the skull almost butting out through the surface of the skin, the fingers like a clutch of wishbones. Even more unhappily, we witnessed her stomach-churning nightly ritual just over an hour after Food and Drink's mass pizza-tasting. Caraline was devastatingly eloquent about her suffering - the father who had put something in her mouth that made her ambivalent about ever putting anything in there again. At the police station, her mother had told her 'Shut your mouth, you' and it was hard not to see this convulsive confession as making bitter amends for the long years of silence. You could say that Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones's film treated her with compassion, but real kindness would have been to leave her alone.

NYPD Blue (C4), the new cop show from Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco, arrived from the US with the added bonus of a denunciation by the American Family Association. The most shocking things about it are the camera, which behaves like a lout on a cross-Channel ferry, charging the characters or suddenly stalling in bleary slow motion as if someone had dissolved Disprin over the action, and the fact that the hero has - wait for this - ginger hair. Not since Danny Kaye got off with the little mermaid has a carrot come out on top. The wit of Hill Street is here, but not yet the breadth of characters. Detective Sipowicz, however, if he lives, should be worth watching. Played by Dennis Franz as a cross between Gene Hackman and a bullfrog, he is easily more repugnant than any criminal.

Having been away for two weeks, I turned on the box to find Esther Rantzen setting fire to herself. It seemed too good to be true. Things were looking up. Usually That's Life (BBC1) is too bad to be true. It was a special on house fires, but the blend of the sickly and the sanctimonious was familiar. I lowered the volume as Esther's voice turned to melted Rolos when she interviewed a girl who had gone back into an inferno to rescue her sister. The flesh on her face still hung like dripping batter off a spoon. With the sound down, you could almost hear the roar which lies on the other side of silence.

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