A Dance to the Music of Time

At the beginning of A Question of Upbringing, the first of Anthony Powell's twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, published in 1951, our narrator Nick Jenkins (played by James Purefoy for the first three parts, with John Standing taking over as the older Nick in the last one) observes workmen by a brazier in the snow, and the scene reminds him of the ancient world and that leads him to Poussin's painting A Dance to the Music of Time, which hangs in the Wallace Collection in London. It shows the seasons in a dance to a lyre played by Time, an old greybearded man. Powell's novels take off from that point, beginning in Nick's schooldays and taking him and his friends through their and the Century's twenties and thirties, through a World War and beyond into the sixties. The plot, as such, is the interrelation of the characters, the patterns they form as they recur in Nick's life, often at social occasions, and as he observes for us. Much of this involves the Kenneth Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale), a figure both comic and sinister, who begins at the same school as Nick. Throughout the series, Nick observes his rise and fall with a mixture of amusement and horror, and the story begins and ends with him. All this in a narrative voice which is unfailingly elegant and witty, able to turn from high comedy to pathos and tragedy at will, but not neutral: he's quite able to skewer the pretensions of those he finds lacking. The novel series, in twelve volumes with the final one, Hearing Secret Harmonies, appearing in 1975, is one of the great works of twentieth century English fiction. The size of the work (twelve novels, around a million words) and large cast of characters, makes it a daunting prospect for adaptation and clearly too large a one for the cinema screen. BBC Radio have done it, but this four-part miniseries, scripted by Hugh Whitemore and first broadcast on Channel Four in 1997, is the only attempt to tackle it in a visual medium. It has to be judged a partial success.

Anthony Powell, pronounced "Pole", was born in 1905 and was still alive when this serial was broadcast, passing away in 2000. Many of the details of Nick's life are those of Powell's, for whom his character is something of a stand-in. He published five novels in the 1930s and worked in the film industry for a while, but his literary career was interrupted by his War service. Although he had those five earlier novels, and two more published after he had completed Dance, it is that twelve-novel sequence on which his reputation rests. The novels are something of a roman à clef, with real-life people behind the fictional ones. For example, the old and mediocre novelist St John Clarke (played here by John Gielgud), trading on past glories, is said to be based on John Galsworthy. Powell wrote about the society he knew and was a part of, largely the moneyed upper classes, and characters from other backgrounds only appear as they intersect with Nick and his friends. The last couple of novels deal with the 1960s, a decade after Powell began writing the series, and it's clear that he, and Nick, both in their own sixties by then, were not a great fan of that decade, as a strange cult takes over the lives of some of the characters, not least the forever opportunist Widmerpool.


You can see why Powell's novel series appealed to the television powers that be: it's an accredited literary classic and its period/historical setting (mostly between the 1920s and 1940s) and social milieu, and very strong cast and high production values, were likely to appeal to the audiences of what became known as "heritage" drama. That had been particularly big in the 1980s, with large-scale and expensive adaptations of Brideshead Revisited, from Evelyn Waugh's novel, in 1981 and The Jewel in the Crown, from Paul Scott's Raj Quartet series of novels, in 1984. In the cinema, E.M. Forster had five of his six novels filmed, three of them by Merchant Ivory.

However, Powell's novels have some stumbling blocks which this serial, produced by Alvin Rakoff, (he also directs the first and third parts, with Christopher Morahan at the helm of the second and fourth), doesn't really overcome. One is the sheer length of the source material. If ten hours is plenty for a 400-page novel like Brideshead and fifteen is fine for Scott's tetralogy of about half the wordcount of Dance (admittedly, I've read neither), four episodes of an hour and three quarters each (two hours with commercials) is not really sufficient to cover Powell's twelve-novel series. That's not because Whitmore's adaptation skimps, though it does streamline parts of the novels, but is due to a bigger issue, one shared by all novels heavily dependent on authorial voice. As mentioned above, there isn't a lot of plot in the usual sense. As well as the narrative voice, the structure of the novels is important. In the sixth volume (The Kindly Ones), a flashback to Nick as a child in the family home in 1914, with the events taking place there on the day of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, is counterpointed with scenes leading up to the outbreak of a new war. In the serial, the 1914 scenes are presented as a flashback which Nick tells his wife Isobel (Emma Fielding) and seems inconsequential as a result. The removal of Nick's narration, for the most part, makes Nick a bystander, and John Standing as the older Nick is left with little to do. Another effect is that we do get to see, briefly, the deaths of certain characters whose endings are reported to Nick in the novels. You can sense this is a problem the makers were aware of : the adaptation begins with Nick visiting his lover Jean (Claire Skinner) who answers the door to him naked, a scene from the third novel (The Acceptance World), put upfront as if the makers thought they couldn't hold an audience unless they put full-frontal female nudity in the opening minutes.

If you're familiar with the novels (as I am), then this series is for the most part a pleasant souvenir, and there's no doubt it looks good and is very well acted. Simon Russell Beale is the perfect Widmerpool, and he won a BAFTA Award for his performance. Also BAFTA-nominated was Miranda Richardson as the self-destructive Pamela Flitton, who was a little too old for her character in the wartime scenes where she first appeared, but comes into her own in the final part when she is in a distinctly toxic marriage to Widmerpool. If you aren't familiar with the source material, then you may wonder what the fuss was about, but if it causes you to read it, that's no bad thing.


The DVDs

Acorn Media's release of A Dance to the Music of Time comprises two dual-layered DVDs encoded for Region 2 only. There are two Films (as the episodes are called onscreen) on each disc, with a Play All option on each. Running times are 104:50, 101:41, 103:34 and 103:42. While there are no captions leading us into and out of the commercial breaks, it's easy to spot where they were, as the picture fades out and the soundtrack briefly cuts out.

Up until the mid 1990s, television was invariably 4:3, save for films which were also intended for big-screen release. However, in 1997 widescreen was on the way, and Dance, shot in Super 16mm, is presented in the ratio of 1.55:1 (14:9), a halfway house between the widescreen standard of 16:9 and the old 4:3, designed to limit the amount of letterboxing that would been seen on a 4:3 set. The anamorphically-enhanced transfer does look very good, with strong colours and solid blacks. It does look softer and grainier than a modern-day HD production would, but that reflects the era when this was made.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, but the surrounds aren't used much except for music. Unfortunately, English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are not available.

The extras are all text-based and are on Disc One. These are filmographies of (in alphabetical order) Alan Bennett, Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Cake, Edward Fox, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Passo, James Purefoy, Paul Rhys, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker. Also on the disc is a six-page biography and a two-page bibliography of Anthony Powell.



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