This diary looks good on paper

Despite its best efforts, BBC4 proves that a comic classic is impossible to film

<strong>The Diary

Kenneth Tynan's line about how he could never love someone who didn't wish to see Look Back in Anger is overused, but in this instance, nothing else will do: I could never love someone who did not wish to read - and reread - The Diary of a Nobody, which I think is the funniest book ever written (yes, so did Evelyn Waugh; I know).

I've read it dozens of times, and if ever I see it in a second-hand bookshop, I always buy it, because there's always some fool who needs educating (as, I might add, did most of the panellists on a recent Newsnight Review, whose ignorance, proudly displayed as they discussed BBC4's adaptation, made me wonder why they'd been booked at all). I don't just love the book because it's so funny; it's also the best protection against low-level pomposity that I know. Make Mr Pooter's acquaintance, and you will be forever alert to self-regard - which, in life, is a huge blessing.

The Diary has been adapted by Andrew Davies - him again! - as part of BBC4's Edwardian season. Actually, I'm slightly mystified as to why this particular series counts (started 24 April). George and Weedon Grossmith first published The Diary in Punch in 1888-89; it's a late-Victorian creation, not an Edwardian one. But perhaps that sounds, well, Pooterish - and, in fairness, both Grossmith brothers outlived Edward VII. No, the more important question is: does it work? The Diary of a Nobody is, like The Catcher in the Rye, a masterpiece of voice, which means, I think, that a sub-standard adaptation is much worse than no adaptation at all. Unlike, say, a flawed novel such as Vanity Fair, which, as Davies also proved, can be adapted any which way and still be a success.

Well, Davies has written it as a dramatic monologue in four half-hour parts, and Hugh Bonneville has taken on the role of Charles Pooter, puffed-up owner of The Laurels, Holloway - "Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of" - and both, I think, have done a seriously top job.

Davies, knowing that you cannot improve on genius, has simply dished up a neatly trimmed version of the novel, while Bonneville has clearly put his every fibre into bringing Pooter to life; some of his pauses are so carefully timed that you wonder if he rehearsed with a stopwatch in his hand. So why did the first part seem so long and so very unfunny?

Personally, I don't think it's their fault; I'm just more certain than ever, now, that The Diary cannot be filmed. The dramatic imperative - here answered by Bonneville walking, talking and pouring port all at the same time - somehow contrives to crush its delightful retrospective pointlessness. Worse, in bringing to life the accidents that befall poor Pooter, such as when his body is stained red by the bath he's painted with newfangled enamel, the tale seems merely slapstick, which, emphatically, it is not. Some jokes work better off-camera: picturing a tomato-coloured Pooter is much funnier than seeing it. I don't know why, but it just is.

This is disappointing, because The Diary is more (dread word) relevant than ever. All bloggers should be forced by law to read it. Relevant, of course, is a BBC4 watchword. The entire Edwardian season is fixated on proving how much like us they were; it is subtitled, ridiculously, "the birth of now", and the trailer features a flickering film of an Edwardian street being invaded by a white Ford van. I don't mind this - though I thought the programme called Edwardian Supersize Me was pushing it; did Giles Coren really need to talk us through his stools while wearing a top hat and whiskers? - but I do wonder if it is wholly necessary. The thing is a treat, interesting for its own sake. After a single episode, I am hooked on, and haunted by, Edwardians in Colour (Thursdays, 9pm), the story of Albert Kahn, French millionaire and photography obsessive, and the joy of it is that there are still five parts to go. It's at times like this that I thank God for the licence fee. BBC4, I often feel, is what television used to be like, only even better.

Pick of the week

Victoria’s Empire
29 April, 8pm, BBC1
Victoria Wood travels the former British empire.

The Double Life of Saki
30 April, 9pm, BBC4
More Edwardians. Documentary about the short-story writer.

How the Other Half Learns
2 May, 8pm, Channel 5
Three comprehensive pupils join a public school.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover