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Martin should have kept his money

I'm slightly ashamed to say I haven't read Martin Amis's zeitgeisty 1984 book Money, which critics seem to agree is the best of his 12 novels to date and which routinely makes any list of the finest fiction of the 20th century. Then again, it took me 20 years to get around to Tom Wolf's The Bonfire of the Vanities.

This counts as more than a slight hindrance if you're attempting to evaluate BBC2's two-part dramatisation strictly on its merits as a literary adaptation (incidentally, word has it Amis is aghast at what scriptwriters Tony Butterworth and Chris Hurford have done with his book).

On the other hand, not being thoroughly familiar with the source material has its advantages. You're not constantly comparing and contrasting. You're not saying, "Oh, they messed up this bit," or "They left that bit out." You can take it on face value, as a piece of stand-alone TV drama.

By that yardstick, Money, which concludes on Wednesday, is a catastrophic misfire. The novel has frequently been described as unfilmable. Amis might have been well advised to ignore the money on offer and leave Money alone.

As anyone who actually has read the book will know, the protagonist (you could hardly describe him as a hero) is the gluttonous, self-destructive John Self: an obese, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, pill-popping, junk food-scoffing, prostitute-bothering, porn-addicted director of TV commercials, who's lured to New York by the whiff of big money and the chance to direct his first feature film, at which point his already chaotic life begins to unravel.

Self is supposed to be a greedy, loathsome bastard. As played by the generously upholstered Nick Frost, sporting a nightmare 80s haircut and a sleazy moustache that makes him look a bit like celebrated porn star Ron Jeremy, the greed is well taken care of (just watch him shovelling an artery-hardening fried breakfast down his neck to the silent disgust of his sexy user of a girlfriend Selina, played by Emma Pierson).

The problem lies with capturing Self's loathsome side. Frost, whose best work remains the comedies he's made with former flatmate Simon Pegg, is nowhere near nasty or horrible enough to be convincing.

Most of the time he comes across as nothing more than a misguided buffoon who's seriously out of his depth, and whatever scabrous wit characterised Amis's novel appears to have been lost in translation. Money veers from vaguely darkish comedy to the kind of antics that wouldn't look out of place in a Carry On film.

It also singularly fails to capture the essence of New York in the 80s -- hardly surprising, since the cash-strapped BBC couldn't afford to film there and had to settle for Pinewood Studios instead. Aside from an early establishing shot that's a loving homage to/blatant rip-off of the dreamy opening scenes of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Money looks cheap and fake.

There are some small pleasures. Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell in Mad Men) is suitably oily and insincere as producer Fielding Goodney, and Jerry Hall has great fun as precious actress Caduta Massi, whose fibs about her age bounce from 41 to 43, often in the same sentence.

The funniest character of the lot is the ageing, monstrously priapic movie star Lorne Guyland (I'm afraid I missed the actor's name), who demands he be given graphic sex scenes and is apparently based on Kirk Douglas, with whom Amis worked on the sci-fi flop Saturn 3.

But these are just loose change rattling around. The first part of Money didn't exactly leave you with an overwhelming urge to spend another hour of your time in the company of John Self. That said, I'll probably rush out and buy the novel today.