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.

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