TELEVISION / Haven't we met?: Thomas Sutcliffe on dodgy characters in fiction, as revealed by Mary Dickinson

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I once met an Egyptian playwright, a man of loud and garrulous charm, who insisted, at the end of a long night's drinking, that he was the original for a character in a John Fowles' novel. At the time I put it down to the Scotch talking or to an appetite for fame by association. But, as I was reading Daniel Martin a few months later, the Egyptian suddenly reappeared in one of the Cairo scenes in the book. He was exactly as I remembered him, from physical appearance to the faintly engulfing nature of his conversation; indeed he tells exactly the same jokes in the book as he had told to me in real life. The playwright seemed untroubled by his translation into fiction but it certainly worried me. There was a vague embarrassment about the moment, as if I had stumbled upon an act of plagiarism or passing off. In one sense the passages were a testament to Fowles' eye, in another they seemed to betray a laziness in the art, a sense of the novelist as mere copyist.

Both accusation and defence ran through Mary Dickinson's film for Arena, 'Only the names have been changed' (BBC 2). Melvyn Bragg insisted that those who linked his unflattering portrait of a journalist in Crystal Rooms with the writer Lynn Barber were merely responding to the 'resonance' of the character. He should have taken the Fifth (as several other writers did) because this couldn't help sound a little backed into the corner. It may have been 'mischievous' of journalists to pursue the connection but then shortly before the appearance of that section of Crystal Rooms Barber had published a particularly acidic profile of Bragg, a piece of circumstantial evidence not mentioned here. It might have been more pertinent for the film's purposes to ask the real Melvyn Bragg what he had felt like when he appeared as a character in a Lynn Barber column.

But then the film seemed muddled throughout as to the best way to proceed. It began with William Amos, a writer who has compiled a dictionary of real-life models for fictional characters. As though aware that this was a something of a train-spotter's approach to literature, Dickinson decided to cast a veil of mystery over him with a thriller soundtrack and an elaborate story about an identity parade.

'Feel free to disbelieve what I am now about to tell you', he said, 'I wouldn't believe it myself if it hadn't happened to me.' This was rather tantalising but unfortunately the film seemed to lose interest in the notion halfway through, returning occasionally for shots of a photo-fit picture being assembled but never finally delivering a punch-line.

You had a glimmer of what they were up to when Nicholas Frazer observed that he would probably have recognised his wife in a Philip Roth novel, even if he hadn't known about her affair with the writer, given that Roth had accurately described her broken tooth and a birth-mark on the back of her leg, but the conceit confused more than it illuminated. Some of the other touches seemed a little clumsy too; attempts to conceal the fact that this was essentially a cuttings job (they even read an old review out at one point) rather than images essential to the argument.

There were good things here - Lord Longford confessing that at times he did feel a little like the ghastly Widmerpool, Penelope Mortimer's fresh common-sense when asked whether she had drawn on her own marriage for The Pumpkin Eater ('Of course - I couldn't draw on anyone else's') - but you were left at the end with the sense of a plain programme wearing heavy make-up.

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