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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
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

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

    £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: Server / Infrastructure Engineer (Exchange, Windows, VMware)

    £32000 - £38000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Serv...

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virtualisation / Cloud Infrastructure Engineer (VMware, Cloud)

    £38000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virt...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum