Television review: We'll meet again ... and again ...

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CRITIC 1: Did you see A Dance to the Music of Time (C4, Thurs)?

CRITIC 2: Yes. Rather good, I thought.

CRITIC 1: Did you really?

CRITIC 2: Didn't you?

CRITIC 1: Perhaps. Perhaps not. Beale was marvellous. Do you know him?

CRITIC 2: Heard the name. I think I went to school with his brother.

CRITIC 2 strolls off, without saying goodbye, then catches sight of CRITIC 1 in a ballroom two scenes later.

That's right! You've tried to read the books, you've seen the start of the TV series, now read A Dance to the Music of Time, the review! Or maybe not. A Dance ... is adapted from Anthony Powell's cycle of 12 novels - 13, if you count all the articles about them in last Sunday's papers. In these novels, Nicholas Jenkins describes the people he meets and remeets from the 1920s to the 1970s. It's one of the great unfilmable works of literature, and as such, it was inevitable that someone would get around to filming it.

I'm not sure how commendable this is. If adapters choose a novel because they think it would make a great TV series, you have to congratulate them for bringing the work to a new audience, as if they had carried home an exotic artefact from a distant land. But when they transfer a book to celluloid simply because it seems like a ridiculous thing to do, the expedition is more akin to Ranulph Fiennes walking to the South Pole in a pair of tennis shoes. Quite an achievement, but why bother? Why not devote your energies to something more useful?

Misguided or not, Alvin Rakoff and Christopher Morahan, the directors, and Hugh Whitemore, the writer, have embarked on their journey brimming with confidence. Thursday's two-hour episode (or "Film One", as it announced itself on the opening credits) was the first of four, and incredibly, it was stitched together from three novels' worth of material. Jenkins (James Purefoy) progresses from Eton to Oxford to London, floating through dozens of parties and country houses, continually bumping into old acquaintances he hasn't seen for years, and whom we viewers haven't seen for a couple of minutes (the tempo of the "dance" is necessarily accelerated from a waltz to a jig). These mostly aristocratic acquaintances have inconclusive, chilly half-conversations, and then they float on, leaving us with the unsettling feeling of being, as Jenkins says of Widmerpool, the school fool, "always on the outside ... an onlooker, never one of the team." A Dance... is Jeeves and Wooster: the Dark Side.

After 45 minutes or so, this super-condensed structure starts to look slightly ludicrous, and you wonder whether the series should have been subtitled Not Bloody Widmerpool Again. "We shall meet again," Mrs Erdleigh, the clairvoyant, tells Jenkins, "in a large house in the country with friends." Well, you don't have to be very psychic to predict that. Jenkins can't buy a pack of cigarettes without meeting the shopkeeper again in a large house in the country with friends.

What do these hundreds of scenes add up to? The answer is that you can enjoy A Dance ... only once you resign yourself to the idea that it isn't going to add up to much, not in a conventionally dramatic sense, anyway. You have to sit back, relax, pour a glass of wine, and take it vignette by vignette, as if you were eavesdropping on Jenkins's casual reminiscences. You have to learn not to worry if a seemingly portentous incident turns out to have no bearing on the rest of the film whatsoever, and not to worry if you can't work out whether the toff they're talking about in scene 214 is the same toff you saw in passing in scene 186.

The character we care about least is Jenkins himself. In the books - not that I've read them - his role is to observe everyone else. His role in the adaptation is much the same, but the nature of the medium makes this problematic. Jenkins's friends talk at him, and he listens in a mildly perplexed silence he may have copied off Prince Charles. If his friends say something unusual, he raises an eyebrow, and his thin pout tightens. If they announce a death or a marriage, he tilts his head and his nostrils flare. He is a lifeless blank: the character who's on the screen the most is the one who does the least.

Still, we can almost forgive him, as his story allows us to see such beautiful houses, beautiful countryside, beautiful suits, beautiful men and women. We can forgive just about anything which features Alan Bennett and Sir John Gielgud as jolly English caricatures; not to mention Paul Rhys, who excels as Stringham, the nerve-racked fop, especially in future episodes; and, best of all, Simon Russell Beale as Widmerpool, a wonderfully queasy, buttoned-up toad.

The dignified performances from A-list actors, the elegant dialogue, the pretty settings, the music, the costumes, the expense ... all of these elements conspire to dazzle the critical faculties. A Dance ... looks so fine that it's hard to judge whether it's any good or not. On the one hand, it's easy to be riled by a film that demands reverence without necessarily delivering enough drama or comedy to deserve it. On the other hand, the first episode of A Dance ... probably does merit the premature acclaim, and not just for its scale and its lavishness. By the end, an uneasy mood of melancholy and foreboding has filtered through the stiff-upper-lippery, and this should entice most of its viewers back to the dancefloor next week.

A couple of Baftas are almost certainly in the bag, but I wouldn't bet on A Dance ... cleaning up at next year's National Television Awards (ITV, Wed). The cast should be relieved. They'll have a better evening if they stay at home and clean the oven.

The Awards are voted for by readers of the TV Times and the Sun. Trevor McDonald, the presenter, was keen to point out that "it's the viewers who decide". This is a flawed premise. Call me a bitter, excluded old TV critic, but if you want to know what the viewers like to watch, why use polling cards at all? Isn't it pointless to ask people to vote for Most Popular Soap, when you can determine that by glancing at the ratings every week? And we didn't even have the Oscar- night anticipation of finding out who won. The results were disseminated on Wednesday morning - if only to give newspaper editors an excuse to publish photos of Caprice Bourret, second-string cover girl of men's magazines, and the ceremony's "roving reporter".

We might, then, have expected, some entertainment, a la the Brits. Alas, no. "Television's big night of the year" consisted of the dishing out of one gong after another, with no fun or glamour, however much the spotlights chasing each other round the Albert Hall protested otherwise. We were supposed to be satisfied with the thrill of seeing "many of your favourite TV stars", as McDonald put it. But we see them on TV all the time anyway. That's why they're TV stars, you fool.

McDonald may be "Britain's best-loved newscaster", but he's no Jonathan Ross. As awkward as the headmaster in the school play, he limped through the the limpest imaginable script - "Where there's life, there's soap", "Television is often at its best when it is both entertaining and informative" - with a lack of gusto that made his and-finally-a-parrot-in-Milton-Keynes- got-into-a-flap-today spots on the News at Ten seem like Rik Mayall in full flight. His ineptitude as a compere was matched only by that of Caprice, and she sounded as if she had learnt her script syllable by syllable.

The only other thing you need to know about the National Television Awards is that Rolf Harris and Matthew Kelly were nominated, but they had more pressing engagements. Wise men.

Next week, I have to relinquish the inestimable power of the television critic. I'd be squandering that power if I didn't conclude with three words: Seinfeld, Sanders, Duckman. Promote the BBC2 executive who imported these faultless sitcoms from the US, and demote the one who chose not to give them primetime slots.

David Aaronovich returns next week.

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