Last Night's TV: Please, no more. It's much too gruelling

Oliver Twist, BBC1; My Boyfriend, The Sex Tourist, Channel 4
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The Independent Culture

I know we're all supposed to fall down in a dead faint of gratitude, hoping someone will loosen our corsets, every time the BBC "does what it does best" and dramatises a literary classic. But I struggled, last night, I really struggled, to apprehend what exactly was being achieved in yet another retelling of Dickens's 1837 novel, Oliver Twist.

The idea was that in commissioning Sarah Phelps, an EastEnders scriptwriter who had never read the original before she embarked on the adaptation, the story would attain "a modern edge". However, this concept is, on the evidence of the first of five parts, entirely flawed. Further lathering this great soap is like enriching a trifle by putting a little dod of cream on it. Dickens pretty much invented the soap opera, and in Phelps's version, the episodic sentimentality of the initial work is highlighted, and the Grand Guignol clich of the characterisation is made painfully apparent. Phelps offered nothing to the story that Dickens hadn't offered already, 170 years ago, and felt she had to make do, poor thing, without contemporary relevance, campaigning passion for social justice, and total originality Oliver Twist being the first-ever novel to tell a naturalistic story through the eyes of a child.

It would be perfectly possible to recast Oliver Twist today, and maintain all of those aspects of the story, though it would take much subtlety and intelligence to do so. Institutional abuse of children still exists in Britain, yet since newborn orphans such as Oliver are rare and precious commodities, it's no use leaving audiences to draw lazy and simplistic parallels. It's a great pity that the BBC, having attracted a typically stellar cast, left them to mimic other performances, rather than actually act, thereby tossing away an opportunity to give it a try. All we had on screen last night was straight-down-the-line melodrama, with the packed plot resting on amazing coincidence, played up rather than down in the pedestrian direction. The narrative technique has become so obvious to us that even quite young children enjoy its subversion. How does one describe a series of unfortunate events, in the wake of A Series of Unfortunate Events? Not, surely, by adding a score of such oddly Celtic portentousness that Lemony Snicket would be proud of. At times, the show resembled nothing so much as panto.

In a less familiar tale, slavish reproduction would not matter. But Oliver Twist has been redone so very many times as a television series on ITV in 1999, and most recently as a feature film by Roman Polanski in 2005 that virtually every scene has become a set piece, and every character a stereotype. One or two of the actors showed signs that they might rise above the ubiquitously hammy retreads of previous portrayals, especially William Miller as a pleasingly spirited Oliver and Sophie Okonedo as an already cornered, already dead-eyed Nancy. Otherwise, the real nod to modern ways in this version is that all the old stuff is sadly disposable, and all the new stuff is easily accessible.

Still, in a coincidence worthy of Oliver Twist, a kind of Bill Sikes for the millennium turned up on television later, in the form of a sociopathic English "businessman". He had tipped up in Venezuela, offering "the girlfriend experience" to a host of mainly British and American holidaymakers, who Dickens would, were he alive today, be immortalising like mad, in all their repulsive, reprehensible glory.

Monica Garnsey's My Boyfriend, the Sex Tourist was an exemplary documentary, content to point a patient camera at human misery and exploitation, watching the pity, the cruelty and the waste unfold. She followed a group of beautiful young prostitute women whose job was not just to have sex for money but spend virtually all their time with paying customers, pretending to be compliantly loving holiday companions 24 hours a day. The latter-day Sikes who ran this show was not, he explained in interview, a pimp, because "pimps sell drugs". In fact, he was "the opposite of a pimp" because pimps exploited their girls, while he protected his in a "secure environment". Appallingly, one could even dimly see how he managed to maintain such denial.

One man expressed his delight that his latest girl was working to raise money to get treatment for her dying mother, since that helped him to believe he was helping a good girl out by renting her genitals. When another woman was forced to run away from a client in the night, due to his aggressive demands for the enactment of pornographic fantasies, he was later, new girl-victims perched around him, heard bemoaning his lot: "Since when was it the girl's choice? Is this place not here for us?"

Even having been provided with what they thought was the desire of their misogynistic little hearts, these men were all still unhappy with their lot. They were lucky they were still in touch with their repulsive, overgrown-baby feelings at all. As one of the women put it: "Because of this job, I am practically numb." I was practically numb just watching it.

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