It used to be a bit of a slur on a novel to say that it seemed to have been written with the film adaptation in mind. But who today could begrudge any mid-list literary toiler the hope of a production company cheque? It isn't as if there's still a living to be made from books. Besides, novelists have something better than movies to aspire to, something nobler and more expansive. Now that television dramas are the supreme art form of the age, a television adaptation actually counts as a step up, a vindication of the printed source. The likes of Michael Chabon queue up to write for subscription channels and an HBO treatment no more counts against a novel than a Library of America edition does.
So you might not immediately see the problem when I complain that The Dazzle seems desperately to want a television adaptation; who doesn't? Nevertheless, Robert Hudson, who is perhaps better known as a writer of comedy on BBC Radio 4, has set about the task of winning one with such a bleak fixity of purpose as to provide as a cautionary example for the rest of his peers.
Hudson's first novel, The Kilburn Social Club, was a moderately successful high-concept affair about an idealistic football team in a parallel universe version of London. A tough sell, in other words. He takes no chances with the second, which is set in the 1930s in Scarborough, a seaside resort in the north-east of England. There was a society craze for tuna fishing during the inter-war years, so big game is afoot when the (real) English aristocrat Lorenzo Mitchell-Hughes challenges the (real) American adventure novelist Zane Grey to a "tunny" fishing contest. The (fictional) notorious playboy, Johnny Fastolf, Earl of Caister, agrees to host their encounter on his big vulgar motor yacht, and a handful of other historical personages (the adventurer and fabulist Mike Mitchell-Hedges plus a giddy young journalist by the name of Martha Gellhorn) descend to take in the show.
The fish and the northern setting are mildly quirky elements, but otherwise we are squarely in Downton Abbey world, the wheelhouse of the British prestige drama industry. Toffs and the aftermath of the First World War are practically the only things the British know how to make television programmes about; they are immoderately rewarded whenever they do and they already have all the props and costumes, so at a certain level Hudson evidently knew what he was about when making his calculations.
Alas, there are things you can pull off on TV that just look cheap or confused in fiction. In particular, even the most reputable shows - The Wire or Breaking Bad, say - tend to run on a fuel of thillerish hokum, and rely on their funereal pace and eye for detail to generate the stately atmosphere of Serious Art. It's hard to manage the same trick in a novel. David Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame, is British fiction's acknowledged master of august froth, but even he raised eyebrows with his last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which began as an opulent evocation of a Dutch trading post in 18th-century Japan and then squandered its fabulous scenery on a story about escaping from an evil wizard. Television, like opera, can dignify stupidity. Novels can sometimes get away with it, but they had better not try to claim snob value in the same breath.
At first, The Dazzle seems like it ought to be able to get quite a long way on snob value alone. Hudson has decent literary chops. He juggles points of view, descending frequently into the epistolary first person as Grey, Gellhorn and Mitchell-Hedges maintain their various correspondences, each in his own, differently vigorous voice. On her first encounter with Falstolf, the coltish and smitten Martha Gellhorn writes: "Please, please don't think me under any illusions! Johnny is merely a charming, aristocratic millionaire with a bad reputation and a castle who makes me laugh." Over the page she recounts a party thrown at an English dog-breeder's manor house: "a kennel complex as splendid as a hospital for Brahmin grandees … " Soon enough, a kind of board game is being played with live Great Danes as pieces, ordered to their positions with commands "not fit for a lady to hear … but no one seemed to mind".
There's a beguiling liveliness and oddness about all this. One feels that things might develop in unpredictable ways. Glittering period references pile up with gossipy casualness; each character is granted flashes of introspective insight and epigrammatic wisdom of a kind that would be wasted in a straight potboiler. "It is easy enough to say that this is not 'real life'," Gellhorn announces, but "it happens to be the life that I lead and what could be more real than that?" A lot of The Dazzle's dialogue, if not quite dazzling, comprises quasi-philosophical exchanges of about this calibre, and everyone seems to spend the bulk of his time pop-psychoanalysing everyone else. A good deal of exertion, in other words, has gone into making these characters appear mercurial and complex, to one another if not to the reader.
Zane Grey, in particular, enters the stage as a splendid monster, a fantastically egotistical "natural man" type who is forever acquiring fresh female consorts and telling his wife all about them. Of one of these, he writes: "Brownie reads Hemingway's books at the breakfast table. She pretends she likes them, but it is clearly to torment me." The peculiarity of this marriage (drawn from life, it would seem), seems at first like a promising portal onto disquieting psychological equivalences. Alas, it soon becomes clear that Hudson is too intolerant of moral doubt to stay long among these shades of grey, and so he sets in train a wearyingly mechanical series of plot contrivances to demonstrate that Grey is not only a philanderer but also a deluded narcissist, a blackmailer, a pervert and a dreadful writer: in short, he's as close to thoroughly bad as makes no difference.
When it comes to Johnny Falstolf, Hudson's discomfort with subtlety works against even his most populist instincts. The earl is meant to give off a Byronic whiff of corruption and danger, surrounding himself with amoral society parasites and operating above the law from his floating pleasure palace, also called The Dazzle. We are encouraged to think of him, so to speak, as a misery wrapped in an enigma (or vice versa: "He is just playing at being a soul in torment, like he is playing at everything else …").
Yet one doesn't have to be reminded that "dazzle" is a kind of camouflage to twig that a heart of purest white-knight beats beneath Johnny's sulphurous exterior. And indeed, as soon as we learn, a couple of pages in, about his manful disdain for dope fiends, we know what seemingly none of the other characters in all their minute self-examination seems able to intuit, namely that we are in the company of a square-jawed, two-fisted English gentleman of the old school. Before long, we are embroiled in an espionage plot involving a dastardly, allegedly Chinese criminal mastermind known as "the Sphinx". (Characteristically, Hudson allows his characters to remark knowingly on the low-rent absurdity of a Chinese character so named, as if they, too, are better than this Sax Rohmer, boys' magazine stuff.)
Perhaps the idea with Falstolf was to make him a Don Draper-style ambiguous blank, a beautiful surface with troubled depths. I have heard it argued that Draper's melodramatic secret past is one of the crudest of Mad Men's narrative resources, that it purchases a convenient metaphor for American self-invention at the cost of cheapening the whole. People never used to talk about television this way. Be that as it may, it seems unlikely that the series could have survived for very long if Jon Hamm's antihero had, besides burying his original identity and fleeing the past, also ponyed up and joined an elite crime-fighting duo.
It is in The Dazzle's final, hopeful moments that such a vision dances for an instant: a sequel, a second season, "The Further Adventures of …", more crimes and parties, perhaps more north-eastern seaside resorts.
But it cancels itself as soon as you notice it, vanishing like a sparkle on the waves.
Ed Lake is a former deputy editor of The Review.