My mother wouldn’t be able to hear…

In television there’s a belief that … ordinary books make good television.

Like all other beliefs it isn’t 100% reliable, but in my opinion it does explain why, say, Agatha Christie comes across so well on the small screen. Her work provides great storylines and very little else so the writer dramatising them can use precision to turn them into something worth watching. It happened on a large scale with one of my own Poirot adaptations ‘Dumb Witness’. I can boast about it because it wasn’t my idea to wrench the story out of its original setting, it was the producer’s. The original location was a house on the Edgware Road, I believe, but he suggested we change that to The Lake District. And having done that why not turn one of the characters into a kind of Donald Campbell, trying to break waterspeed records out on Ullswater? So what with all that , a fantastic backdrop, and Poirot tip-toeing up and down Great Gable it suddenly became interesting and a pleasure to write.

There’s a flip side to that belief about bad books making good television. Good books very often make lousy television but that rule of thumb can’t be applied to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, now showing on BBC. The fact that it’s bombing very slowly isn’t down to Len Deighton and his beautifully written ‘what if’ novel. The adaptation has been screwed up by sheer imcompetence, something the BBC’s getting really good at lately. The script? Dull as ditchwater, not a memorable line in it ,and certainly no lightness of touch which subject matter like this requires. And the last thing needed when writing anything about Germans, past or present, is clichés. The script is top heavy with them. Casting? The central character needs to be played by a powerful, charismatic actor and it isn’t. Direction? Appalling. It’s so slow you can make a cup of tea between lines. If you can hear them. I never blame actors for mumbling, I blame directors who shouldn’t wrap a scene until they’re sure their mothers would be able to hear it.


Douglas Watkinson is an English novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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