REVIEW / All dressed up and a long way to go . . .

THE OLD truism has it that 'Bad books make good television and vice versa.' It's a truism that isn't true, in fact, but it's certainly the case that a book's reputation will provide a slope down which your expectations roll; in the case of classics the gradient is always steeply against the adaptor. So the question to ask about Stephen Lowe's Scarlet and Black (BBC 1) is not whether it has coarsened Stendhal's masterpiece but how? Has it found sufficient compensations in its own style to make good the necessary disregard for the author's? If you like American mini-series then I think you will answer yes. This is not so much Scarlet and Black as Stendhal's I'll Take Paris.

That isn't entirely a condemnation, by the way. Stendhal's account of a young man on the make has more than a little of the calculating ambition that fuelled so many Eighties best-sellers, even if its portrait of Julien Sorel is infinitely more subtle and questioning. And as a sexy tale of ambition and intrigue in post-Waterloo France the television version is fine. Julien (Ewan McGregor) isn't the slight, pallid figure of the novel but a Chippendale in a frock-coat and when he encounters Madame de Renal for the first time you can almost hear the sexual excitement, like the faint crump of igniting petrol. There are rumours that the film may have a theatrical release in the United States and you can see why. Costume drama isn't quite the box-office death it was and all that restrained passion (followed by unrestrained sex) fits the mood of the times too. 'If you liked Dangerous Liaisons you'll love Scarlet and Black]' Provided, that is, that you push Stendhal from your mind.

To be fair to Lowe it was never going to be the easiest task. The novel is gossipy and promiscuously curious, piling up information about the complex politics of the time which simply won't fit into the dialogue. Lowe tries to smuggle some of this through in incidental speeches, but you can see the bulges. As the Mayor, Martin Jarvis is visibly struggling with lines that are a damn sight heavier than they should be ('Admittedly this Sorel boy is a mere carpenter's son and his uncle was a fanatical Bonapartist but Father Chelan swears he has a kind of genius').

Other failures are less forgivable - somebody has decided that it is a good idea to represent Julien's passion for Napoleon by having Boney pop up now and then to egg him on. At first this is merely distractingly comical - he appears all over the place, on the cross in church, standing in the middle of a waterfall, emerging from behind the rhododendrons - but it soon becomes infuriating. Far from dramatising Julien's moments of hesitation, the way he has to hitch his nerve above his confidence, it presents him as mildly deranged. It's one thing to be reminded of Judith Krantz while watching an adaptation of Stendhal, quite another to be reminded of Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam.

More young men on the make in Fine Cut: The War Room (BBC 2), a gripping documentary which followed Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. It was essentially a study of James Carville (who bears a striking resemblence to the snake in Disney's Jungle Book) and George Stephanopolous (Clinton's erstwhile press secretary, who bears a striking resemblence to Mowgli) and it neatly captured the sort of raging obsession you need to drive an election-winning machine. D A Pennebaker cut his film to the rhythm of the campaign, slowing the editing as the pressure mounted to concentrate on longer, tension-filled sequences: a white-faced Stephanopolous trying to persuade an anonymous caller not to release a damaging rumour about Clinton; a scene from election day in which Carville brilliantly extemporises what Bill will say if he loses.

It was often very funny, too. Overhearing a report that Ross Perot has spent dollars 60 million, Carville drawls out an instant epitaph: 'That is the most expensive single act of masturbation in the history of the world.' On this evidence the guy is a natural to replace David Letterman.

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