TV UK, 6 December

Anyone desiring a public life has done badly to be born in the twenty-first century.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

‘Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century.’ Leon Trotsky

Dr Zhivago illustrates Trotsky’s point, though with considerably more sympathy for the would-be recluse. Pasternak’s novel (1957) and David Lean’s film (1965) can be seen as protests against the tyranny of history from the point of view of the sensitive soul who just wants to shack up with a beautiful woman (or two). Andrew Davies’ current adaptation (ITV1, concluding on Sunday at 9pm) is more like a victory parade for bourgeois deviation.

Zhivago’s struggle to live a happy personal life against the background of the Russian Revolution and civil war chimes with the spirit of our own times, when personal fulfilment is regarded as an impossible dream, and anything else as a dangerous fantasy.

To add insult to injury, the ruthless Bolshevik Strelnikoff is now played by Nick Harper, a clownish sitcom actor who can also currently be seen in repeats of My Family on BBC1. It is hard to make sense of the dedication and self-sacrifice of a Russian revolutionary in terms of contemporary television, and Pasternak’s gargoyle has become a ridiculous caricature. The technique of merging archive footage into the film is similarly clumsy: these images are from a different universe.

Andrew Davies’ other current adaptation is Daniel Deronda (BBC1, concluding Saturday at 9pm). George Eliot’s novel set in Victorian England dramatises a very different set of personal crises. Gwendolen traps herself in a miserable private life, while Daniel’s search for identity ends with his embrace of Zionism. As he teaches Gwendolen, the secret of happiness is not to indulge one’s own desires, but to find a focus outside oneself. Zionism may be even less fashionable than Bolshevism these days, but it gives Daniel’s life a genuine depth that is missing from the merely private.

I sometimes worry that anyone desiring a public life has done badly to be born in the twenty-first century. Unless of course by public life we mean private life played out for the cameras, reality TV-style. Now that I’m stuck with terrestrial TV, I ended up watching the Frank Skinner Show (ITV1) at the weekend, and saw Myleene, one of the winners of the reality talent show Popstars, lamenting her persecution at the hands of the press, before bursting into tears for the cameras.

It made me think of last week’s The Shield (Channel 5), which featured an emotional breakdown in very different circumstances. Young coat-and-tie detective Dutch was interrogating a serial killer, who tried to undermine his confidence by turning the tables and subjecting the cop to a ruthless psychological profile. In the end, Dutch triumphed and secured a confession, but after taking the plaudits from his colleagues (‘craves affection, fantasises about being liked’), he went to his car and burst into tears.

It would be easy to see this as another expression of the nancy-boy emotionalism of our times, except that this was an intensely private moment, and I think a man has a right to cry in his own private space. For the purposes of drama, we were seeing something that really could not be seen. This is the closest television gets as a visual medium to the inner voice of the novel, and it is the polar opposite of reality TV, in which a non-actor hams up his or her own emotions for public consumption.

Thursday 19 November sees the terrestrial premiere of ‘Once More With Feeling’, the famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BBC2 at 6.45pm). When it comes to artificial realism, as opposed to fake reality, you just can’t beat this. Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be brought back from the dead in Sunnydale.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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