In 1939, young Oliver, Calypso, Polly and Walter visit friends and family in Cornwall. Spanish Civil War is over and WW2 has begun, so they enjoy their love life while they can. Decades later, they gather again, this time for a funereal.
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This television adaptation, by Hugh Whitmore, of Anthony Powell's twelve-volume book condenses all the action of five decades, and over a hundred characters, into eight hours. We first meet the main characters Nick Jenkins, our constant narrator; Kenneth Widmerpool; Charles Stringham; and Peter Templar when they are at school together. Through the years we watch them move through their tangled lives, which end in tragedy for some, happiness for others.
Making an impact within the cast are James Purefoy as Nick Jenkins (playing him from university to the end of World War II); Jonathan Cake as Peter Templar; Claire Skinner as Jean Duport; Grant Thatcher as Mark Members; James Fleet as Hugh Moreland; Zoë Wanamaker as Audrey MacLintock; John Gielgud as St John Clarke; Miranda Richardson as Pamela Fritton; David Yelland as Jenkins' father; Edward Fox as Uncle Giles; and Michael Williams as Ted Jeavons.
But the best performance within this series by a mile is from the wonderful Simon Russell-Beale, managing to turn the truly horrible Widmerpool into a rounded character who is totally convincing, whether as a figure of fun at school, as a pompous major in the war, as a humiliated husband, or as a free spirit dancing.
One little quibble would be why did they suddenly change the casting for Nick Jenkins and no other main character in the final episode? J C Quiggin, Odo Stephens, Mark Members, Widmerpool and others remain the same actors made up to look older. Jean and Isabel (Mrs Jenkins) are also recast but this isn't as noticeable. So, after two and a half episodes getting used to James Purefoy as Nick we suddenly have to adapt to John Standing. He's effective, but I think this change was a mistake.
So, is this adaptation any good? It is true that sometimes you lose track of who's who (who they were related to, who they married, where they met) but there are numerous scenes of interest not all directly witnessed by Nick. The musical soundtrack is superb and well-chosen. Having eight hours to tell the story means that things don't have to progress at a breakneck pace, and if some aspects come off better than others, nothing really fails. Dance to the Music of Time' is an engrossing and superior piece of TV drama.
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