Television Review: What's the frequency, Kenneth?

Last Monday night I began to hallucinate Widmerpools. It was my own fault, I suppose. I was suffering from the worst cold of my life; I'd taken too many capsules and pills and drunk too many honey-and-whisky toddies. Now I was lying on a bed made-up on the sofa and ploughing through all four films in Channel 4's A Dance to the Music of Time.

After a while, as dusk turned to night outside, little fat men with glasses began popping in and out of the sitting room wanting to talk to me, or calling me on the telephone, or populating my occasional dreams with their risible confidences and finally - in an appalling denouement - dancing naked round ancient standing stones.

Now, I am a man of culture who - due to a period in late adolescence when the spirit moved me to read huge novels - has almost invariably read whatever book is being adapted for TV this week. So I was not unfamiliar with Kenneth Widmerpool, having ploughed through the first seven volumes of Powell's work some years earlier. Nevertheless, the Widmerpool who insinuated his podgy bulk into my private space this week was not my old Widmerpool. It was TV's Widmerpool, Simon Russell Beale's Widmerpool, who stalked me for a night, and who has come to stay.

There are some critics who will be unhappy for this to be the case. Many of my colleagues decided, early on, after episode one, that this Dance was not up to snuff. They, too, had read Powell's work, and this was not it. This version was absurdly condensed, reducing the passage of years to the space between commercial breaks; it was full of nothing but parties; the young men all looked the same; the dialogue was repetitive if not silly. The thing should never have been attempted.

Some of these arguments are right, and there's no point complaining that reviewers should have waited for the whole series to unfold, before committing themselves to print; two hours is an awful lot of screen-time, as C4 recognised when not finding space for an off-peak repeat. And the first episode (or "film" as the producers called it) was indeed weakened by the number of times in close succession that un-aged characters expressed astonishment and surprise at encountering each other again after so long. The fact is that 20 primary and 23 important secondary characters were introduced in the first two hours, and the dance (as someone wrote somewhere, I forget who and where) was more of a foxtrot than a waltz.

The other criticisms are, however, largely wrong. The books themselves move from one social occasion to another - very rarely giving us access to some solitary moment. Nor, as some have claimed, are they punctuated by long flights of psychological insight from the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins. A surprising amount of what he has to say is, in fact, straightforward physical description of the person or the season - beautifully done, of course - and captured in the TV series by what the viewer actually sees. It could be here, however, that the books manage to achieve their sense of time - of a man remembering - which is only really achieved in the series in the gaps between the episodes.

What is true is that the series does change some of the sense of what is in the books. Of course it does. The very act of televising must alter our perspective. How could it be otherwise? For example, the narrator himself emerges as far more passive and morally irresolute than Powell's original, because we see him physically not leaping to Widmerpool's defence when the sugar is poured on his head, we watch him stand by as fascists break up a peace march, we witness his immobility when Stringham is bullied in the officer's mess.

In the same way, surprising things can happen in this translation. The two most powerful scenes in the series were those involving the decline of Charles Stringham, especially his wartime night conversation with Jenkins, in which he accepts his fate, and makes it clear that he is a man purged of ambition and unnecessary pride.

There were many other good scenes. What a confident adaptation does is create a new work of art, which is partly the book and partly itself. Thus the best TV adaptation can sometimes mean flouting what seem like the most explicit instructions, or sometimes simply using the medium to convey visual resonances. One of the best of these occurred when General Conyers and his wife were informed of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke and Duchess, while themselves sitting in their car - and looking very like those photos of the doomed Austrian pair in the minutes before their historic demise.

All right, all right. What is it that makes me want to go on and on about A Dance to the Music of Time - and how others have reacted to it? The reason is that I think I smell snobbery here. Some of the criticism has more or less suggested that any good book must be superior to any good TV show, just as there are many in the newspaper business who assume that any newspaper reporter is better than a TV journalist, that their features are better researched and more thoroughly presented than anything on telly. TV, it is often said, is a broad-brush medium, concerned with image and not with idea. It is a distorting mirror, rendering reality in bright, but crude colours.

Take it from me, this is balls. It is certainly the case that the average TV show disposes of very few actual words. The article that you are reading now constitutes enough verbiage to fill a 40-minute documentary, not allowing for interviews. But consider this: TV cannot simply make something up - the worst that it can do is to edit selectively. It cannot attribute an entire programme to anonymous and invisible "sources": virtually everything has to be shown. And there is not a newspaper in this country that will - these days - devote a fraction of the research time to a policy or investigative story that - say - Panorama spends on even one of its fairly short turnaround shows. Unless, of course, we're talking about the resources thrown by rich tabloids at getting the goods on a bonking Tory. And - finally - there is not a newspaper in this country that could withstand the intervention of a militant fact-checker with the confidence that the BBC could.

The price to be paid for all this virtue is that newspaper journalism is often funnier, more entertaining and more provocative than its televisual counterpart. But it certainly is not any better. Nor is TV drama "inferior" to the theatre, nor does it adapt the classics "at its peril", nor does TV sport turn people away from football matches, nor is everything better seen on the large screen. There is, of course, crap TV. But the only comparative sense in which television is "inferior" to the other arts and recreations is - I often think - in some of the people who are employed to write about it. And having read all this stuff, you may be inclined to agree.

So this week's 75th anniversary of the first BBC broadcast (albeit on radio) is a real cause for celebration. But what was extraordinary in the first part of Auntie: the Inside Story of the BBC (BBC1, Tues), was that the naive and puritanical world of the early Beeb could have coexisted with the serial adultery and indulgence of the real models for A Dance to the Music of Time. Lord Reith's secretary at one point recollects being told by her boss that a handsome announcer had been sacked because he was a homosexual. "What's that?" she asked him, adding, "It sounds silly, but I had no idea." Reith himself hounded a woman musician off the air because she was divorced, and the formidable "Women's Staff Administrator" used to lurk in the Art Deco lobby at clocking-on time, scrutinising the legs of female employees for stockinglessness, and sending offenders home to get dressed properly. It is hard to see Jean Templar agreeing to that, let alone Pamela Flitton.

No, today, as far as I can tell, it is bestockinged heterosexual monogamists who might have difficulty holding down a career in broadcasting. And that is as it should be, if the broadcasting is to uphold Reith's dictum of remaining always "on the upper side of public taste."

And, meanwhile, in my sleep, it is C4's Widmerpool - portrayed by an actor at the height of his powers - who prowls down the years, conjuring the passage from childhood to death.

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
People walk through Autumn leaves in St James's Park yesterday
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits