Monday, October 31, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

When I was young, I had the principle of flavoured crisps explained to me. When you buy a packet of chicken-flavoured crisps, I was told, you do not experience the taste of chicken flesh at all. What you taste are all the condiments that are associated with the preparation of a cooked chicken. Dipping crisps into powders and spices is easier for the manufacturers of crisps than infusing them with a true chicken flavour. Your taste buds are thus fooled into thinking they have experienced the flavour of chicken when they have tasted nothing of the sort.

Aspiring to be a poet, I often think in far-fetched metaphors. This principle of crisp flavouring strikes me as an excellent metaphor for something non-crispy which I have recently experienced.

Picture my home environment during the school holidays. In residence are me, one wife, one cat, one rabbit and three teenage daughters.

The teenage daughters are a studious lot. They spend most of the day in their rooms quietly swotting for post-holiday exams, some of their time on Facebook, and some delightful time practising their singing or musical instruments. But in the evening, with no homework to do during holidays, they crave something worth watching on DVD (knowing, of course, that nothing on free-to-air television is worth watching).

So we plunge into a season of watching BBC serial adaptations of classic 19th century novels.

The first week, I hire from the library the 2005 BBC version of one of Dickens’ longest novels, Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson in a very creditable performance as Lady Dedlock and a quite terrifying Charles Dance as Mr Tulkinghorn. (On decaying videotape we already have the 1985  version of Bleak House in which Diana Rigg does an equally good, but very different, Lady Dedlock).The 2005 version was the one which, divided into half-hour episodes, was promoted in Britain as a soap-opera, played in the time-slot immediately after East Enders, and gained a huge soap-following viewership as a result. There are over eight hours of it. We watch it over three evening in 2- or 3-hour lots. We all, apart from the cat and the rabbit, thoroughly enjoy it.

A few days later I haul out my decaying videotapes of the 1977 BBC version of Dickens’ shortest novel Hard Times. (Apparently the Beeb revisited it with another version in 1994, but I haven’t caught up with that one.). There are only three hours of it, and we watch it over two evenings, again with full enjoyment.

A few more days go by, and I hire the 2002 BBC version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But here something curious happens. On the whole, daughters and wife enjoy it, as we watch its 3-and-a-half hours over two evenings. But while I find it well-produced and acted, I also find it extraordinarily thin, the characters oddly empty and under-developed. I do not particularly enjoy it.

Now you might think that there are some obvious explanations for my negative  reaction. Maybe it has to do with the author. Maybe I’m a chauvinist pig and therefore more sympathetic to male authors like Charles Dickens than to female ones like “George Eliot” (Mary-Anne Evans). Maybe the very moral George Eliot is harder to bear than the more boisterous Dickens. Maybe it’s the novels themselves, and perhaps Daniel Deronda isn’t as interesting as either Bleak House or Hard Times. Or maybe I was all classic-serialled out, and watching three of the beasts in one fortnight was just a bit much.

But I offer you a different explanation for my negative response.

I’ve read both Hard Times and Bleak House and know those novels fairly well. But while I’ve read most of George Eliot at one time or another (Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Romola, The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner), I blush to admit that I have never got around to Felix Holt or her last novel Daniel Deronda, even though both of them sit, unread, on my shelves – all 600 large, finely-printed pages in the case of Daniel Deronda.

When I watch a BBC adaptation of Bleak House or Hard Times, my brain is in part replaying my memories of characters and situations and prose as I have experienced them on the printed page. In short, much of the nuance of the TV version is not provided by the TV version itself, but by my memories of what Dickens actually wrote.

But watching Daniel Deronda, I have no such memory to fall back on. The sights, sounds, locations and dialogue of the TV presentation are all there is. I have no residual memory of how George Eliot presented it to fall back on, none of her fine interior monologues or the long, self-contained authorial observations that are such a feature of her work. Result? Characters are seen from the outside only, without the author’s psychological analysis, and therefore they are inevitably thin.

I argued once before that to some extent film and TV adaptations of classic novels are like the old Classics Illustrated comics. All outward image and dialogue, but completely lacking the distinctive style of the author being adapted.

I now argue that they are like chicken-flavoured crisps. There’s Lady Dedlock visiting her lover’s grave, and there’s Jo the crossing sweeper dying as he says the Lord’s Prayer and there’s Mr Tulkinghorn scheming and Mr Jarndyce being benevolent  – the condiments of the plot. So we simply imagine that we have tasted the chickens – Dickens.


  1. I think a little provocation is fitting here, so here goes: you are just a chauvinistic pig, and so am I. George Eliot is a most unmale writer, with a great deal of psychological observation and a certain deficiency in blarney. I keep wishing she would get on with it and finish up. Nurture or nature: you were not originally programmed to read George Eliot. But you were born with a Dickens gene. He is one of our great laddish writers, a leg-puller, an exaggerator, and as he spins out his stories by installments, he mesmerizes male readers, even when mediated by a BBC adaptation ...

  2. No, no - I plead innocent of the male chauvinist gene! Those Eliot novels I've read I enjoyed (Though the ending of "The Mill on the Floss" is particularly dodgy; and Romola is a Victorian intellectual in the wrong country and century). I even enjoy her long self-contained essays that stop the plot - very similar too (but more soolemn than) the chitter-chatter asides in Thackeray.

  3. Vincent Reid recommended your blog. Now not only do I learn that chicken flavoured crisps do not taste of chicken but that George Eliot was a woman. The crisp information is something of a revelation and should be more widely known. But then perhaps it is. Perhaps in fact, as with George Eliot, I am the last to know. This wouldn't be the first time.

    Perhaps equally disturbing, I can now picture Vincent Reid in 20 years time but with a beard.

    So thank you for your interesting blog, it's as if a veil has been lifted.