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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.