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REVIEW / Picking up the fine threads of connection

MIDDLEMARCH (BBC 2) opened with a sort of Cecil B De Mille footnote, a lavish bit of spectacle which suggested that the adaptor had worked from a Penguin edition, or at least one with plenty of helpful essays on social context. A post-coach garlanded with frock-coats and felt hats bowled past the camera which then panned down into a railway cutting full of labouring navvies. Out of a nearby tunnel puffed a replica of an early locomotive. 'The future]' exclaimed Lydgate from the coach, in case you hadn't got the point of this didactic camera movement. For a while it looked like the most expensive adaptation of a Coles Notes pamphlet ever mounted.

George Eliot, who wasn't exactly clueless about how to pitch a serial narrative, decided to secure her readers' affections by hooking them into a tale of love and marriage - Dorothea's embarrassments with Sir James and her odd courtship by Casaubon proceed pretty much uninterrupted for the first 80 pages. Andrew Davies, who isn't exactly clueless about popular series either, has done a bit of shuffling for this first episode, giving precedence to Lydgate and plaiting in some of the other narrative lines.

The result is a panoramic vision which zooms in now and then on the personal rather than a domestic vision which slowly expands along the filaments of association and bloodline and gossip - what Eliot calls the 'fine threads of connection' - until an entire society is created. In the novel you start with a person, Dorothea, and end with a town, Middlemarch. Here you began with the town - a teeming piece of prop display with hens a-clucking, urchins a-larking, yokels a-gurning, market men a-hagglin' and foin gennelmen a-trottin' by on glossy chestnut mares (personally I can take this sort of thing until the meticulously authenticated historic breed cows come home, though it's hard to believe the past was quite so noisy). The result is a production which hasn't quite begun to clutch as a narrative but which offers a lavish supply of incidental pleasures while you wait.

Not the least of which is Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea. One of the mysteries of the novel is quite how Eliot makes you like her central character. Imagine Dorothea triumphant and you have a Dickensian villainess, priggish and self-deceiving and capable of an odious piety. Eliot explains that she has physical charm but in the novel her beauty can't act on you directly to redress the balance, as it does for the men in the book. Eliot isn't above a certain waspishness either - 'She felt that she enjoyed (riding) in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it' she notes at one point, a wonderful line that can't really hope to survive into the television version, where Dorothea's sentiment looks merely petulant. In the end it is the heroine's distress that reconciles you to her rather than her own winning ways.

On screen it's possible to be a bit infatuated in advance of that moment and Aubrey certainly manages the trick, both severely beautiful and a bit of a bore, the sort of girl a simple young squire would like to have across a broad table - in his eyeline but out of earshot. The rest of the cast - a display cabinet of British character acting - also conveys more of the subtleties of the novel than you might have hoped for, perhaps because they have been cast to type and played slightly against it.

Michael Hordern as the aged Featherstone, upon whose will so many expectations ride, delivers his standard harrumphing old gentleman but adds a nice twist of manipulative pleasure to the conventional muttering. Patrick Malahide, in yet another cold-fish role, melts the glaze a little to let you see the scholar flustered, and Robert Hardy, as another bluff and blustering knight, is fonder and warmer than you might expect from past roles. It's a simple pleasure to watch them at work, and as a result Davies's slightly busy insistence on starting so many balls rolling all at once hasn't stalled the narrative before it has begun.