Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 28 May 2010

I  only know Martin Amis’ novel ‘Money’ by reputation, but it’s a big reputation as one of the defining novels of the 1980s, with lead character John Self hailed as a scabrous avatar for the excesses of the age.

Exactly the sort of book I should have read, but haven’t. While an adaptation is no real substitute for reading a book, it’s a substitute a lazy person like me is willing to take, and as such I welcomed BBC2’s two-part version of ‘Money’, broadcast this week.

What I saw surprised me. Considering the novel’s reputation, I was expecting something akin to a British ‘American Psycho’ (albeit without the serial killing): a relentlessly grotesque and heightened satire on the period.

Instead, I found ‘Money’, at least in its screen incarnation, surprisingly tame, almost amiable. The transatlantic odyssey of former ad-man and wannabe film director John Self,  lured to New York to develop his debut movie (also called ‘Money’) by a ruthlessly charming producer (Vincent Kartheiser, even more WASPishly oily here than as Pete Campbell), may pass in a haze of booze, sex, drugs, pornography and strip clubs, but none of those things are dealt with in a particularly shocking way.

Most of the supporting characters are grotesques, with caricature names like Lorne Guyland and Spunk Davis, but as played here they’re more eccentric than extreme. The intensity level only really rises when Tim Piggott-Smith is on-screen as John’s embittered, bad-toupee-wearing father with the vigour and ferocity missing elsewhere.

Nick Frost’s portrayal of John Self is the heart of ‘Money’, and that’s both a good and bad thing. Good, because Frost shows here that he can carry a serious drama, and bring the necessary emotional range. Bad, because Frost is in some ways too bloody likable. Self’s addictions and vices seem more forgivable when filtered through Frost’s cuddly persona, making him more endearing than monstrous.

Frost’s laconic narration sets the pace for the adaptation, and that pace is quite relaxed, with little sense of the disorientation that comes from constantly switching timezones.

Although maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that ‘Money’ is so polite – it is, after all, a BBC adaptation of a classic novel set in the past. It’s a costume drama, a classic serial: just because the period in question is the 1980s rather than the regency doesn’t change the essentials of the form.

If nothing else, the BBC should be praised for taking a more recent novel and adapting it with the respect usually reserved for Austen or Dickens, and I’d love to see more great books and plays from the last three decades on the screen.

As for ‘Money’, it has much to recommend it. Most of the acting is great, and while the lack of budget occasionally shows with a lack of extras and set-dressing, there are some neat visual flourishes. The production team should also be praised for not slamming the button marked ‘RETRO’ in a show set in the 1980s, restraining themselves from over-using contemporary music and the more extreme styles of the time.

However as a satire on the 80s obsession with, well, money, ‘Money’ feels mild, a wagging finger rather than a slap to the face. I can’t help feeling that there should be more bite here.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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