20 January 2004 | Clive-Silas
This programme hit the headlines because it seems to be the epitome of the British equivalent of "Must See TV", but is being shown first on th BBC's relatively new arts channel BBC Four, which cannot be seen in most homes. In addition, the star, John Hurt, kicked up a fuss about the smallness of the budget and the BBC's apparent terror of making a proper dramatisation which might not meet with the audience figures that they crave above all these days.
I think any programme getting the sort of coverage this got in order to promote the watching of BBC Four - the last bastion of serious public broadcasting - is only to be lauded.
The actual execution, however, is quite disappointing. Minimalist to the point of absurdity, we see Hurt as Clark in some kind of broom closet for an office, desultorily exchanging a few words with his secretary, while the voice over, reading straight from the diary, fills in all the actual plot detail. It sometimes feels like the entire programme is one long montage sequence with commentary, and this makes for very unsatisfying television. Characters other than Clark himself are characterised as barely more than extras, which since some of them were leading politicians and civil servants with their own public fame, leaves the viewer feeling distinctly short-changed.
When you read the diary you get a sense of Clark's free-spirited railing against the bureaucratic world of Whitehall, and his refusal to knuckle under to the system. Even knowing that the diary is one-sided, you grow to have a liking for Alan Clark and to sympathise with him a little. But exposed to the pitiless eye of the television camera, it is all revealed as being simply Clark's own incompetence and complete inability to do the relatively minor job in the government he is shown craving at the start. We aren't shown any reason that Clark didn't keep up with his briefs so we are left with mere laziness, and have no sympathy at all when he comes a-cropper in the House and in Committee. And again, in both the Committee scene and the notorious drunken appearance before the house, any true sense of the drama is sucked out by the montage style in which both these scenes are presented. Hurt does not even get the opportunity to act particularly drunk, as we cannot actually hear him speaking, masked as it is by the constant voice over.
Time was, the BBC would never even have considered doing such an adaptation using anything less than the full range of their production capabilities - in addition to John Hurt and Jenny Agutter, the cast would have been star-studded and every episode would have been 48 to 60 minutes long. They have done Clark, themselves and particularly BBC Four, no favours at all. But even in the absence of money, there are better ways to make this programme than the first episode evinced.