TV Review: A Dance to the Music of Time

It's questionable whether any literary work can survive a compression as intense as that undergone by A Dance to the Music of Time. Last night, in the first episode of Channel 4's adaptation of Anthony Powell's 12 novel cycle, some 720 pages had to be distilled into less than two hours of screen time. For obvious reasons barely even a homeopathic trace of Powell's patrician ruminations remain - what has survived are the incidents upon which he strung his grand reflections. If you haven't read the books the effect is rather like attending a reunion party at which you have no share in the common history. People refer to funny stories in a kind of private shorthand - "Remember Widmerpool and the sugar caster?" - and everyone around you roars with laughter, leaving you mildly baffled (and mildly bored) by this unexplained hilarity. Again and again these anecdotal fragments - clearly landmarks in the long sweep of the original novels - are presented with a faintly stiff self-consciousness, as if they were mnemonic tableaux rather than an organic part of the drama. They brought with them a sense of ritual compulsion, a knowledge that the devotees of the cult would not countenance the absence of events which had helped them to traverse that great sea of prose.

The series is described as "Written for the Screen by Hugh Whitemore", a phrase that appears to hint at liberties taken. In fact, barring the framing device (which allows the makers to deliver a naked woman almost instantly) this appears to be largely an act of heroic excision rather than re-imagination. It's true that the screen, because it is incapable of descriptive reticence, will automatically rewrite the book anyway - when Nicholas Jenkins sleeps with Gypsy Jones after the funeral of Mr Deacon the event is described by Powell with such elaborate circumspection that an inattentive reader could easily assume nothing had taken place at all. On screen you get a quickie on an ottoman, a pair of highheeled feet waggling above Nicholas's manly shoulders. This coupling is detached from anything that might count as motive or consequences - indeed from any kind of psychological penumbra at all. There just isn't time to find out why Nicholas does it or what he thinks of it afterwards. While it is a slightly desultory, accidental affair in the novel it is nowhere near as vacant as it is here.

The compression also has baleful effects on the plot itself - if you were judging from the television series you might think that Powell had merely strung together an endless series of exclamations, each of which marks a coincidental meeting between two of his characters: "Widmerpool!" (a meeting on an omnibus),,"Stringham!" (an encounter outside a tea-stall), "Mr Deacon!" (well-met in The Mall), "Mark Members!" (a collision in the park) . Occasionally these are varied with an additional expression of surprise: "My dear Nick! What are you doing here?" or "Uncle Giles! What are you doing in London?" It is a small world, this claustrophobic circle of old school friends and university acquaintances - but not small enough, apparently, to keep its members informed about what each other is up to. Surprisingly often characters have to be brought up to date with important changes in their acquaintances' circumstances. Does nobody ever gossip at those lavishly reconstructed balls?

A slightly self-congratulatory air surrounds this series - as if old motor cars and black-tie revels were a kind of warranty mark of a serious commitment to drama. Within its type it is all done perfectly well - the vintage cars obey the canonical rule that all movement must be accompanied by regular honking, the actors do their best to cling to the thin ledges of characterisation the script affords them (Simon Russell-Beale as Widmerpool and Paul Rhys as Stringham are particularly good), the music is charmingly evocative. But it's hard not to feel that A Dance to the Music of Time represents a weakness of nerve not a boldness. It is a nostalgic bid for the prestige of grand projects such as Brideshead Revisited and A Jewel in the Crown but unfortunately the bid is too low to be likely to succeed.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
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
News
news

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
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

    Teaching Assistants

    £50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

    Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

    £1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

    Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

    £85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

    SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week