You can have too many books, y'know

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The Independent Online
IT WAS when the proprietor sacked the editor - or, anyway, suggested to the editor that he might like to move on - that I decided it was time to write about a subject which I have until now left to others.

The topic in question is Middlemarch, the current BBC serial. Four out of six episodes are now down. Casuabon is dead. Mr Brooke has abandoned his political ambitions and has declined to renew the contract of the radical journalist, Will Ladislaw, as editor of The Pioneer. The production team's reasonable pleas that the serial - a long-haul form - should not be judged too soon can no longer be observed. It is the moment to consider the success of this vastly symbolic project: a return by the BBC to its broadcasting traditions during a period of violent redefinition in television.

My first angle of analysis is - in line with the spirit of the TV times - ratings. Although the Reverend Casaubon was opportunistically described in episode one as having 'one foot in the grave', there was no expectation that he would compete with the 17 million viewers drawn by Victor Meldrew on BBC 1. Even so, a show that spent pounds 6m on filling six hours was under considerable pressure to do well in BBC 2 terms. Indeed, the corporation had said openly that Middlemarch was to be considered a test case for the viability of the classic serial in the post-Murdoch, post-Thatcher schedules.

The early figures suggest that the shades and estates of the great writers can relax. The first episode drew 5.65 million viewers on BBC 2, with 2.8 million for the BBC 1 repeat. Subsequent audiences - although the most recent figures are estimates - show 4.52, 4.4 and 4.3 million viewers for episodes two through four on BBC 2, and 2.7 and 2.8 million for the Monday repeats. This means about 6.5 million viewers are now caught by a story which lacked the traditional audience- reinforcers of sitcom actors or detailed female nudity. George Eliot's performance easily betters a series average of 3.2 million for the more conventionally sellable The Buddha of Suburbia - a figure boosted by a big switch-on for a well-reported orgy in part three - and 3.1 million for Ben Elton's Stark.

Sensitive literary types who find it disturbing that George Eliot should become subject to the judgement of the number of bums on sofas can take comfort from a slightly more elevated kind of ratings: bestseller lists. This column has in the past pointed out to those with snobbish objections to television that the medium has not been the undertaker for literature, but rather the nursemaid. Further evidence of this unexpected phenomenon - that the easier alternative of visual narrative for some reason sends people back to the trickier original of print - is provided by the presence at No 1 in the paperback bestseller charts of Middlemarch.

But if Eliot's text flourishes in its original form, there remains the vital question of how the book has survived the television operation, particularly as this patient had so many anxious loved ones. The adaptor, Andrew Davies, has a record of bringing out the sex in texts that didn't necessarily know they had it, but he has been properly gentle with George Eliot. Most of the passion - as in Ladislaw's farewell to Dorothea in episode four - has been clothed and unspoken, and the more erotic for it.

Davies has been sensibly sparing with another trap of modern adaptations of classics. This is the humour of superiority, or time ironies: for example, the horror of the citizens of Middlemarch at Dr Lydgate's desire to cut up the body of one of their number after death. The writer also avoids the allied temptation of injecting topicalities. The only nudge in this direction is the addition of the John Major mannerism 'Oh, yes . . . oh, yes' to Mr Brooke's disastrous address at his election rally, but I think Eliot would smile at that.

The serial's main failure, for which the director, Anthony Page, must be blamed, was a lack of early pace. So slow were the first two episodes that it is a measure of the audience's collective will for the serial to succeed that ratings remained as steady as they did.

Page's production also raises interesting questions about the filming and editing of visual recreations of the past. There was a scene in the Vatican library, where Casaubon's writer's block was dramatised by the camera spinning dizzyingly around the ranks of existing volumes, with the pictures superimposed over Casaubon's dulled skull.

This modern electronic trickery contradicted the serial's general dedicated attempt to rebuild the 19th century. It was a reminder of how careful directors of period pieces should be about perspective. Too often, the careful avoidance of anachronism in scene- setting is ruined by an anachronistic angle: for example, an aerial view in a tale set before the invention of aviation. In Middlemarch, Page, sensibly, usually uses the plausible eyelines of a contemporary onlooker.

But for all the talents of its adaptor, director and actors (Robert Hardy has recovered his reputation, and Rufus Sewell made his), Middlemarch's main asset as a television property is that - around her precocious concerns with politics and psychology - George Eliot presciently combined all the favourite subjects of television drama: marriage, medicine, politics, class, money. The readings of Featherstone's and Casaubon's wills, and Rosamund's miscarriage after a fall from a horse, are scenes with exact parallels in popular television serials from Dallas downwards. I make this point not to denigrate Eliot's novel, but rather to commend it. Middlemarch is another reminder that the division between the fiction of plot and the fiction of ideas is a peculiarity of modern literature.

One fear should, however, interrupt the cheers. For all the long sell-by date of its ideas, Middlemarch is not Boys from the Blackstuff or Edge of Darkness. There is an obvious danger that costume drama could become a cop-out from the corporation's obligations to riskier, original drama. For many years now, the BBC has had in and out of production a serial called Our Friends in the North, an epic by Peter Flannery about political corruption in Britain: a hot potato from which a number of executive hands have flinched. A BBC carrying out its full historical duty would be one in which both Middlemarch and Our Friends in the North - and their equivalents - were produced and promoted with equal enthusiasm.

So, wonderful as it is to find one of the finest English novels with six million viewers and thousands of new readers, the BBC should still bear in mind Mr Brooke's episode four warning to Dorothea: 'Not too many books. Moderation, y'know.'