Magazine article The Spectator

Wish I Was There

Magazine article The Spectator

Wish I Was There

Article excerpt

The first volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time begins with a metaphor which establishes the theme for the entire work. He remembers workmen standing round a brazier in the snow; they remind him of Roman legionnaires, then of the dancing figures in Poussin's famous painting. Finally, his thoughts turn back to school, where the narrative begins. In 49 elegant lines he has told us exactly what he is going to say and how he is going to say it.

The Channel 4 adaptation, by contrast, began with a naked woman. She was a beautiful naked woman, Claire Skinner, and it was nice to see her, but it wasn't quite the same. Thanks to the demands of television, we got neither brazier nor brassiere.

The received wisdom for years (A Question of Upbringing was published in 1951) has been that A Dance is unfilmable. I'm afraid that the received wisdom is right. Mostly we lack Powell's prose, which is spare, lucid and has its own stately rhythm. It takes you by the hand and guides you. Watching the events he describes without the narration is like trying to waltz on your own.

Which is not to say that the programmes aren't, for the most part, hugely enjoyable. Even if you haven't read the books, you'll recognise most of the characters. Everyone has a Widmerpool in their life. Mine is also ambitious, pompous, self-deceiving and socially inept. Now and again people tell me in an awe-struck sort of way that my Widmerpool (not his real name) has just been appointed to some hugely important new job which the rest of us would happily spend six months in a Turkish jail to avoid or married a woman of whom the same could be said. And Simon Russell Beale is quintessentially Widmerpudlian, to the extent that he is the only important character who is played from start to finish by the same actor. Your true Widmerpool, born wearing grey flannel rompers, remains identical from boyhood to knighthood.

Nick Jenkins, played by James Purefoy, is also precisely right. We all like to imagine we are Jenkins: calm, reflective, popular and unobtrusive. Few of us are. Though he is supposed to represent Powell himself, Jenkins is actually the most fictional and improbable character of all.

The least convincing character is the Marxist writer J.G. Quiggin. Nobody reaches the dizzy eminence of being a left-ofcentre critic in The Spectator by sounding as chippy and offensive as a Daily Worker editorial. …

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