No house for Mr Biswas

Michael Jackson has been hailed as the saviour of British television. So what led him to lose confid

This is the story of why V S Naipaul's comic masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature a few weeks ago, was turned down for television adaptation in 1997 by Michael Jackson, who had just usurped the top job at Channel 4. It was almost exactly five years ago that I suggested to Peter Ansorge, then head of drama at Channel 4, that A House for Mr Biswas could be made into a four-part serial. He went home and reread the book, and found it as exciting as the first time, and even more amusing. Before he could do anything, he was asked to leave his post. Jackson had taken over as chief executive, evinced an interest in drama and wanted to appoint his own commissioning editor. That was, after all, the art of being boss: vilify the past and dump the people "tainted with too much experience". He had learnt all this at an expensive management school in the United States, to which the BBC's John Birt had despatched him so that he could become top-manager material. Here, you pick up management jargon - that is, someone else's bad ideas are stuffed, mounted and repeated like a mantra.

The new head of drama was Gub Neal, a literate and cultured fellow who had not only read Naipaul, but told me that A House for Mr Biswas was his "favourite novel of all time". Furthermore, he had lived in the West Indies. He commissioned four one-hour scripts. I established contact with the author and was invited to lunch. Naipaul spoke of how he had always hated the idea of his work being polluted by cinema and television. I heard of a dinner many years ago at "Mr Ford's hacienda" on the west coast of America, a dinner whose vulgarity had offended the writer. He left before the final course, unable to work with Hollywood. "Mr Ford" was Francis Ford Coppola. That was a long time ago. Naipaul had softened and had changed his mind, partly under the influence of his new wife, Nadira. He was now ready to discuss possible dramatisations. Ismail Merchant had bought the rights to The Mystic Masseur, but had asked Caryl Phillips to write the script. Naipaul was filled with foreboding. It might turn out to be awful. (It was.)

We agreed on Farrukh Dhondy as the scriptwriter. This had been Dhondy's profession before he was wrecked by an overextended tour of duty as multicultural commissioning editor at Channel 4. Now he was out of the box and could work again. Ansorge joined the team as a co-producer and script editor (his old job at the BBC many moons ago). The scripts were written, carefully edited and approved by Naipaul. He liked them because Ansorge had curbed Dhondy's inventiveness and forced him to stay close to the original. Naipaul's dialogue in the novel worked extremely well in the dramatisation. Neal liked the scripts. Now we were in search of a director. An ominous silence followed. Then a phone call. The project had been cancelled. Why?

It later emerged that, at the crucial meeting to discuss finance, the scheduler and the marketing men, who now dominated Channel 4, had been told that all the main characters in the novel were Trinidadian Indians. This made it difficult to contract Hugh Grant or Denzel Washington to play Biswas. In twisted logic, this meant it could not be shown during prime time and would have to be screened after 11.30pm. The brave Michael Jackson shrugged his shoulders. In that case, he is reported to have said, we can't afford the project. Market nihilism won that battle, and many others, because the creative people were too scared to fight back. Neal was also dumped when he couldn't produce a ratings hit. And so poor Mr Biswas was killed. It was not racism, but ratingism.

Market realism almost always kills creativity. No risks are taken. A television station that refuses to give young directors the right to fail will wither and die. It has happened to BBC1 and Channel 4, where the only thing left worth watching is the news. A channel created by parliamentary remit to cater for the tastes of political, intellectual and ethnic minorities had been captured by the market. The only "minorities" permitted were sexual: women with big breasts, men with large willies, and so on. Anatomy superseded belles- lettres. This be-came the sum total of the remit. Channel 4 became a brothel; and if the shortlist of those likely to succeed Jackson is accurate, then his successor will be even worse, and the channel will descend from the gutter into the sewer.

When I told the story of Mr Biswas to Jeremy Isaacs, the founding father of Channel 4, he looked sad. We recalled his watch at the channel. It seemed unimaginable now. New Labour, new culture, old market. Once the channel began to sell its own advertising, the end was near. Michael Grade was strong enough to defend his own instincts against the marketers, but Jackson - like his creator, John Birt - was a man without instincts. There is an emptiness in their souls. What they and their clones lacked was supplied by focus groups and other market devices. Similar focus groups were used by the BBC, resulting in a similar loss of diversity.

There is now an increasingly ignored minority in Britain - the intelligent viewer. This minority crosses every possible divide: class, gender, age, race and political affiliation. Over the past decade, it has been increasingly ignored by the public service broadcasting networks for the simple reason that executives have been confident in the knowledge that intelligent viewers had no alternative, nowhere else to go. They were prisoners, destined to languish in the only available facility. Instead, many of them just switched off. That's one reason why Channel 4 now faces an advertising crisis. I often feel like writing to Gordon Brown: "Put them out of their misery. Privatise the sods." But then, I know I would miss Jon Snow and the only serious news bulletin on TV, and so the letter remains unwritten.

What can one say of a culture in which pride of place is often awarded to programmes on home decor, cooking, hospitals, cruise liners and pets, and to mindless quiz shows presided over by brainless quizmasters? The youthful and self-consciously jokey tone of so many presenters is pure pastiche, the mimicry of styles imagined to be popular. Contentless clowning serves only to emphasise the dead and stifling character of the new canon. An environment has been created where philistinism flourishes without serious restraints, where innovation usually means weightless iconoclasm, and where complex issues tend to be avoided on principle, except when there is a war. Then the executives confront their empty cupboards. No serious programme on Afghanistan for a decade that can be plundered for footage.

The desire to maximise ratings leads both private and public sectors in the same direction. Public service broadcasting was always conceived of as a mix that was both popular and able to appeal to minority tastes. The overall shift in our culture has tended to swallow the latter. The trend is unremittingly towards strictly hierarchical and celebrity-led media, where the more you watch, the less you know.

Over the past decade, British culture has become increasingly self-referential and self-congratulatory; as a consequence, it is now shipwrecked. Here, as in other areas, new Labour has been worse than the Tories. As we approach a common European currency, the dominant culture in Britain has swathed itself in a blanket of parochialism. Television, radio and newspaper coverage of the rest of the world has declined dramatically over the past five years. Though our citizens travel more than ever before, they are less informed than ever. The result is an overall lowering of educational and cultural standards.

In most European Union countries, there is regular coverage of the politics and culture of member states. In Britain, there is little coverage of the EU, let alone the rest of Europe or the world. Human-interest stories - life politics - seem to be the only route to the rest of the world: natural or human disasters, sex scandals, famines, assassinations, funerals of heads of state and wars.

Last week, I received a phone call from a senior Franco-German broadcaster. Could she please see the scripts of A House for Mr Biswas?

Tariq Ali's latest novel, The Stone Woman, is published in paperback by Verso this month (£8)