Powells apart

Anthony Powell's novel sequence `A Dance to the Music of Time' fills 12 volumes and spans over half a century of British history. Channel 4 has reduced it to 480 minutes of prime-time television. DJ Taylor spells out what viewers will be missing

Channel 4's TV dramatisation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time has been a long time coming. Conceived in the aftermath of Granada's hugely successful version of Brideshead Revisited, its erratic progress can be tracked through Powell's recently published journals. BBC2 looked good for a while, until network controller Jonathan Powell (no relation) decided that the initial script lacked muscle. Subsequent interest from the commercial channels flickered and died. Ten years later, the fond project of Powell's old age is finally with us two months short of its creator's 92nd birthday.

With its multi-million-pound budget, lavish sets and a sumptuous cast (including Sir John Gielgud, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker), Dance is being (rightly) pushed as the "jewel in the crown" of C4's autumn season. Yet pleasure at seeing the greatest English roman fleuve of this century brought to the small screen is balanced by the thought that dramatising Powell presents problems of a kind peculiar even to the televising of novels.

For purposes of comparison, where Brideshead's 350 pages and 20-year time-span were converted into 12 hours of television, allowing whole scenes and pages of dialogue to be reproduced at leisure, Powell's 12 full-size novels have been packed into just four two-hour films - some 480 minutes of television for a work that covers over half a century of British history (1914 - c 1969).

The decision to cast different actors to play some of the longer-lived characters at different points in their lives leads to occasional sharp disparities. Peter Templer, boyhood chum of the book's narrator Nicholas Jenkins, turns from fresh-faced schoolboy to jowly middle-aged clubman in what, chronologically, is a mere six months. Jenkins himself looks far too young in some of the wartime scenes, as played by James Purefoy, and rather too old as subsequently re-invented by John Standing. The difficulty of changing horses in mid-stream seems eventually to have occurred to the producers, as Standing's first appearance, in material drawn from novel No 10 (Books Do Furnish a Room), originally set in 1947, is fast- forwarded by about 10 years, so losing all the Attlee government Cold War politics that give the novel its historical edge.

More important, perhaps, is the problem of scale. The various compartments of English life which Jenkins manages to infiltrate during his 50-year progress include Eton, 1920s Oxford, arty London bohemia, 1930s literary politicking and the war, finally coming to a halt amid the student disturbances of the Wilson era. Even a Powell addict can get confused over the exact relationships enjoyed by the vast cast of characters, while the ramifications of the multitudinous Tolland family, into which Jenkins marries, are best approached with a copy of Hilary Spurling's Dance handbook (much of the period detail is obtainable from the recently reissued Album of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Thames & Hudson pounds 14.95).

In writing the script, Hugh Whitemore's most immediate dilemma, you imagine, was to deal with the books' first-person narrative, the fact that - as far as one can judge - the entire sequence is an exercise in memory produced by the chain of associations kicked into gear at the start of A Question of Upbringing by the sight of workmen grouped around a brazier in falling snow. Whitemore's solution is to have Jenkins explain much of his past life to other people. Thus the series opens with him arriving at the home of his mistress, Jean Duport (this actually takes place in Powell's Vol 3, The Acceptance World), and embarking on a protracted bout of reminiscence. Not only is this oddly stagey, it also contrasts with the wonderfully terse and stylised way in which Nick and Jean communicate in print.

This, it transpires, is only the first of a series of departures in which scenes run into one another or are otherwise compressed, rafts of minor yet significant characters disappear altogether, while others are reduced to the status of walk-ons (no one should be fooled by the publicity suggesting that Dance "stars" Sir John Gielgud, by the way - as superannuated novelist St John Clarke, he's on screen for perhaps a minute and a half).

This is TV, of course, and, if nothing else, TV means adding colour to the narrative - in this case a relentless over-statement of what in most cases is only implied. To take only one of its behavioural tics, C4's Dance specialises in graphically observed deaths: Jenkins' schoolfriend Stringham beaten to pulp in a Japanese PoW camp; Templer garrotted on a wartime spying trip; Mr Deacon, the ageing artist, tumbling down a flight of stairs; a bomb falling on the crowded Cafe Madrid. In print these are merely reported, or inferred. At the same time, Whitemore and his director, Alvin Rakoff, have cut out many a more humble scene which nevertheless has substantial implications for the working-out of the plot: the half- chapter or so set in mid-Twenties London, for example, where Stringham stands Jenkins up because he has a smart invitation, and Nick acknowledges a symbolic parting of the ways. So too, while Zoe Wanamaker turns in a brilliant performance as Audrey MacClintick, the wife of an embittered music critic, the mundane horror of their shared life is not dwelt upon enough to explain MacClintick's squalid suicide.

Some of these discrepancies are the result of cramming 3,000 pages into eight hours of film. Many of them, though, stem from the difficulties involved in televising this kind of book, of transferring a novel mostly concerned with interiors to a medium largely interested in surfaces. The outstanding obstacle, in fact, is the at times faintly anonymous figure of Jenkins himself. His function in Dance is an odd one, less a character than a point of view, a diffident observer rarely keen to disclose details of a personal nature, whose conclusions about other people's characters and motivations tend to be at best provisional. Plainly this won't do for a four-part TV drama: Rakoff and Whitemore's fix is to have him confide to others what in the books he merely thinks. Thus Nick's first meeting with Isobel, in print, produces only a mental marker flag. On screen, he instantly tells his friends he intends to marry her - an action that is completely out of character.

Again, the inadequacies of the medium are probably responsible for some of the most conspicuous missing moments: for example, the scene in which Nick, returning to Lady Jeavons's bombed-out house, has the news of her death broken to him by Eleanor Walpole-Wilson. One misses this in the same way that one misses the pseudo-philosophical exchanges with the musician Hugh Moreland, but one knows why they aren't there - something to do with the difficulty of conveying the intensely felt in pictures rather than words.

If this sounds captious, it's not to ignore some well-constructed narrative, some fine performances, and some inspired casting, including Edward Fox as Jenkins's Uncle Giles, Alan Bennett as Sillery the wire-pulling don and Miranda Richardson as the vamp to end all vamps, Pamela Flitton. Simon Russell Beale as Widmerpool is simply outstanding, convincing in each of his character's transformations - from owlish Eton schoolboy to broken- down labour peer - eagerly conveying the steady ascent from buffoon to sinister eminence and radiating Widmerpool's peculiarly deathless brand of humour-free self-absorption. He is an example of what a really top- class actor can do with material as subtle as this.

So what does Powell himself make of it all? Talking to him last week, I discovered that he thinks Rakoff's film "really... all right" and was unfazed by some of the liberties taken with the text: "If people see things in a different way, then I'm pleased." Neither do the missing scenes particularly disturb him - "You could remove parts of Dickens and Proust without destroying the overall effect." A Dance to the Music of Time is eight hours of highly watchable and entertaining TV, and if it sometimes fails to do justice to the complexities of its source, that's no fault of the talents involved, simply the perennial constraints placed by a low-level medium on high art.

`A Dance to the Music of Time' begins on Thursday at 9pm on C4

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