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03.03.2017

Reader, this story is dedicated to the fulfilment of a bpb dream. Yes, a screen adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novels has been commissioned; and yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the eponymous hot, tortured mess of upper-class British manhood. We thought this might happen.  

To imagine the St Aubyn effect, take all the thrills Evelyn Waugh and the Mitford sisters have ever sparked in you; add a side of heroin addiction and the high life in modern London, New York and the south of France - and serve with a sense of enduring sorrow. 

The Melrose quintet consists of five short, closely-controlled novels, each except one taking place over the course of a day, centered around a British aristocrat with a bottomless well of family tragedy, a healthy amount of self-pity and an exquisite sense of irony. When someone tells Patrick Melrose that he is his own worst enemy, he replies: “I certainly hope so. I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.” 

Patrick’s poison is heroin, wrapping itself “darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat  curling up on its favourite cushion" - listen to Zoya Akhtar read these lines on our podcast here. These novels are not about the diversion of pain, however, but about its persistence. Ruined relationships are never healed; death brings no peace to the living; getting off the horse doesn’t fill the unseated addict with the will to live. 

To imagine the St Aubyn effect, take all the thrills Evelyn Waugh and the Mitford sisters have ever sparked in you; add a side of heroin addiction and the high life in modern London, New York and the south of France - and serve with a sense of enduring sorrow. 

All this would be asphyxiatingly sad, but Patrick himself is so stubbornly resistant to the performance of sorrow, so ready with the bon mots of a repressed and repressive irony, that reading the books can make you a little light-headed. And irony is one way forward, perhaps: if you are able to be “in two places at once,” as Patrick says about the freedoms of being non-literal, you can travel between cruelty and love, and pain and its alternative.

As you can see, repeating Arthur Conan Doyle’s dialogue is a bit different from inhabiting St Aubyn’s cruel, epigrammatic universe. We can’t wait to see how Cumberbatch will translate, with his beautiful hangdog face, something like this, for example: “At last, a real person with a real question, albeit a rather bizarre question. How was he supposed to ‘care for’ a dessert? Did he have to visit it on Sundays? Send it a Christmas card? Did he have to feed it?”  

Almost are we tempted to feel gloomy about the outcome of this bold TV experiment, but we live in a world where even the unadaptable PG Wodehouse lives - kind of -in a well-regarded Fry & Laurie sitcom. Let us proceed then, to borrow a title from one of the Melrose books, with some hope.  

Getting there: Get the Patrick Melrose novels - ‘Never Mind,’ ‘Bad News,’ ‘Some Hope,’ ‘Mother’s Milk’ and ‘At Last’ here

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