Cramming Anthony Powell's magnum opus, the longest novel in the English language (over 3000 pages published in 12 parts over 20 years and at least 400 characters), into 8 hours of television is an awesome task which defeated several would-be adapters including Dennis Potter, but Hugh Whitemore has managed it here, although of course a lot has been left out. The obsessive Captain Gwatkin and the likable rogue Dicky Umfraville do not make an appearance, though minor characters like Robert Tolland whose only claim to fame is his involvement with an older woman appears in full. It can't have been easy deciding what to leave out, but rightly, I think, the blue pencil fell more heavily on the weaker later parts. Powell was a lot better at depicting the 20s, 30s and 40s that he was the 50s, 60s and 70s, after he had moved from London to Devon. Maybe Hilaire Belloc was correct, at least for urban writers, when he said that the country 'was a kind of healthy death.'
The effect of the necessary editing (the dialogue is usually straight from the novel) is to put that great character of English fiction, Kenneth Widmerpool, firmly in centre stage (though his gruesome mother has been dispensed with). Widmerpool is portrayed over the 50 year time span by the same actor, Simon Russell Beale, in a stunningly consistent characterisation. He is a monster, but there is something very ordinary about him, a kid who was never accepted for what he was and who became a power-hungry bureaucrat as a means of imposing his will on those who would not accept him. The final crack-up is a tad fanciful, but it fits, for at last Kenneth can be his obsequious self while at the same time reject the hierarchy he has spent the previous 50 years trying to climb (the best he does is a peerage and a University Chancellorship, which would have to be regarded as consolation prizes). Widmerpool was obviously inspired by some real-life acquaintances of Powell's, but he is a true fictional creation far more vivid and horrible than if he was merely the subject of a disguised biography.
One of the mysteries of the novel is why Nicholas Jenkins, the self-effacing narrator, spends so much time on Widmerpool, who is patently not Nicholas's kind of guy. In fact Nicholas, who mostly hob-nobs with fellow-writers and artists such as Moreland the composer, probably shares Bob Duport's opinion uttered from his wheelchair near the end that Widmerpool was 'a château-bottled sh*t'. Perhaps it's just that Widmerpool has been adopted as the centre of the Dance and we should remember there are many other interesting stories going on around the centre. Pamela Flitton, la belle dame sans merci, is splendidly realised by Miranda Richardson (despite being too old for the part) and this tends to strengthen the focus on Widmerpool, given her stormy relationship with him and her unparalleled ability to create scenes on genteel social occasions.
Having to cast two or three actors in the same part (four in the case of Jenkins) is always a problem, and the gap between Jenkins Mark III (James Purefoy) and Jenkins Mark IV (John Standing) is, alas, obvious. Some actors, with the aid of excellent make-up, age beautifully, like Adrian Scarborough as J G Quiggan and Alan Bennett as Sillery, others, such as the beautiful Mona (Annabel Mullion) scarcely age at all. 'Dance' is stuffed full of wonderful minor characters Uncle Giles, Mrs Erdleigh, McLintock and his wife, Lady Mollie, Ted Jeavons, Erridge, Magnus Donners, Matilda Donners, Deacon the painter, St John Clarke, Mark Members, to name about a dozen of them. Most of the performances are fine, though maybe John Gielgud (at 95) was a bit ancient for a novelist in his 60s.
I hope viewers of this production won't be put off reading the book (which is still obtainable in a four volume set). I don't know whether it is still obtainable but there is also an excellent 'Handbook' to the Dance and its characters by Hilary Spurling, published by Heinemann in 1977.
Anthony Powell, who died aged 94 in 2000, was keen to have 'Dance' televised (on his terms) and spent years trying to get it on air. His contemporary Evelyn Waugh hated the idea of his novels being televised, or for that matter being made into films. Ironically, "Dance" on TV, while generally good viewing is very much a compromise and 'Brideshead Revisited' remains the TV adaptation which produced a work of art comparable with the novel itself.
9 out of 10 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.