The stylish dictator

Television - Andrew Billen is unmoved by a drama that portrays Hitler as all too vulnerably human

If there were an Emmy category for best moustache in a TV drama, Hitler: the rise of evil (Channel 4, Saturdays 4 and 11 October, 9pm) would sweep the nominations. Hitler's father, in this account, had the longest moustache in all of Braunau am Inn, and, by some sort of historical irony, sired the man with the most famous short moustache ever. Adolf, or "Addy", or "Uncle Dolf", as he was alternatively called by his family, did not settle on the micro look in an act of Oedipal rejection, however. Early sequences in this two-part American mini-series showed him experimenting with his facial hair: wide, long, thin, bushy. When a National Socialist spin-doctor mentioned it to him, Hitler was not slow to grasp that less could mean more.

This graphic designer's insight came from a frustrated painter who had promised his mother he would one day be a great artist but failed to get into art school, the examiner telling him, in one of the few jokes the writing combo of G Ross Parker and John Pielmeier risked, that he had no style. Now style Hitler had. Although Hitler at the easel struggled to produce the simplest nature sketch, when it came to forging corporate identities, he was a veritable Wally Olins. In 1920s Vienna, however, graphic design was in its infancy. There is nothing more dangerous, this drama suggested, than a frustrated bohemian.

If my tone sounds flippant, blame it on my having watched three hours straight of earnest American television. Much as I love US television drama, I sometimes wonder whether, if you strip out the jokes and the corn, it would be any good. The only joke in the entire Hitler proceedings comes in part two, when someone looks at the latest poster of the great man ("Die Stimme fur Adolf Hitler ist die Stimme fur den Wechsel" - a vote for Adolf Hitler is a vote for change) and quips that it is lucky the family changed its name from Schicklgruber. Robert Carlyle as Hitler does a valiant job of pretending to look amused. For about half a second.

Carlyle is, as he must be, the best thing in it. Hitler's transformation, perfected by much practising with the arm gestures, from weaselly, resentful youth to charismatic bully is extremely well negotiated by this actor, who manages to present Hitler's insecurities without allowing us to feel sorry for them. An opponent, the journalist Fritz Gerlich (played by Matthew Modine), tells his wife that Hitler is "not human. He's studied people in order to understand humans, but all he has discovered is our fear and hatred." That is a defensible position, but the script offers an alternative: that Hitler was one of the most vulnerably human people who ever lived, and the most damaged.

His childhood is done away with while the credits are still being established, but we see a boy who despises his thrice- married father, resents his half-sister and is in love with his mother (Stockard Channing, the president's wife in The West Wing, here takes an interesting digression on her career path). It is a Jewish doctor who tells him mum is terminally ill with breast cancer, a Jewish art professor who rejects him from college, and a Jewish officer who reneges on his promise in the trenches to award him an Iron Cross. So his anti-Semitism does not come out of nowhere, although it is interesting how unimportant and embarrassing it is to his middle-class followers in Germany.

Addy also has difficulties with girls, falling in love with his half-sister's daughter so badly that he is willing to risk his dignity by sliding over a frozen pond with her. He provides her with the biggest bedroom a girl could want, although Geddy is keener to canoodle with someone normal in the back of a car. "He's a monster. You can't imagine what he asks of me," she complains, although all we know is that Hitler forces her to go to his rallies and Wagner operas - admittedly, bad enough. Geddy eventually kills herself with Hitler's own gun, suicide or its contemplation being the drama's leitmotif.

Given the hypnotic central performance, the extraordinary story and the prurient interest we all share in Nazi psychology, it is odd how plodding the whole thing is. Too many date captions; too many newspaper front pages. The cumulative effect is of exposition rather than dramatisation. When a really big actor comes on, as Peter O'Toole does to play the decrepit President Hindenburg - an anthology of tremors and tics - you notice the difference more than you should.

Admittedly, with Hitler as your anti-hero and with Burke's line about the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil being for good men to do nothing as your opening epigram, a supporting cast will have difficulty making its presence felt. But the sub-plots do not help. The story of Ernst Hanfstaengl (Liev Schreiber) and his American wife, Helene (played with many a Hollywood air by Julianna Margulies, Nurse Hathaway from ER), is meant to be illustrative of what happened to Germany: one half becomes infatuated, the other remains silent until too late. Unfortunately, you hardly notice or care. For drama to triumph, it is necessary, one concludes, for the good men to do rather more than nothing.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times