A Dance to the Music of Time

Rating 7.3
Streamer All4
Seasons 1
Episodes 4 x 100 mins

The books on which these set of films are based were a bit like the Harry Potter of the mid 20th century. And we don’t mean that the dance they’re on about is actually some synchronised broomstick-flying. But between the years of 1951 and 1975, readers would anxiously await the next instalment, devouring each new novel within days of release, hooked by this arcane world and its many characters.

And luckily for you, you don’t need to find time to read 12 novels to get a taste of this nostalgic treat, you can simply enjoy the four TV films adapted from the series.

If you’ve ever successfully waded your way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then you’ll be well geared up for this. In A Dance to the Music of Time there are so many characters – over 300 in the books – on the go, and each of them is either related to or shagging another, and they’re all constantly nattering about who’s who and what’s what. The one easy to follow character is our narrator, Nick. With him we wonder through life in London as various school friends and old Uni pals bump into each other, making posh proclamations and sharing anecdotes only to disappear shortly afterwards, not to be heard of until the next chance meeting on another London street.

For some viewers it might all feel a bit pretentious, a few too many black-tie events and a bit too much hat tipping, but if you can look past all that then there’s a lot on offer here. For one, the cast is cracking: Eileen Atkins, John Gielgud, Alan Bennett, James Purefoy James Callis, Claire Skinner. And special mention goes to Simon Russell Beale, who plays Kenneth Widmerpool. They’re all utterly charming, and funny too, making the most of Powell’s clever and joy-filled material.

Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian calls this collection of films “gloriously rich and comic,” which remains “as true as possible to the spirit of the book,” saying, “watching these people suffer thus unto death is an absolute delight.” Writing about playing Widmerpool in The Times, Simon Russell Beale called him: “a simply marvellous character — a man of limited talent and imagination who climbs to the top of the greasy pole through a steely willpower and an unshakeable self-belief.” Well, still very much a man of our times then.

First shown October 1997.

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