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Old-school drama is full of heart

If we have to be sucked back through an economic vortex to the bad old days of the 1980s, then at least let's try to console ourselves by remembering some of the good things about that miserable decade of hairshirts big hair.

Like, for instance, the ambitious, grown-up dramas Channel 4 used to produce regularly and, at least for the next few Sunday nights, is producing again.

Any Human Heart is a sprawling, four-part, eight-hour adaptation of William Boyd's epic novel about a writer, Logan Mountstuart, whose life spans every decade of the 20th century.

I haven't read Boyd's doorstop of a book, but the first episode of the television version, scripted by the writer himself, is funny, sexy and compelling, and immediately made me want to seek out the novel.

Any Human Heart opens with a heart spasm as the elderly Logan, played by the great Jim Broadbent, staggers through a field. This is the cue for him to start sifting through a mountain of old journals and photographs. As he arranges them into neat little piles, Logan -- half-English and half-Portuguese, we later learn -- looks back on a life that's been far from neat, yet extremely eventful. He recalls himself as a boy with a head of golden curls, sitting on a boat in a lake.

Two younger, adult versions of himself, played by Sam Claflin and Matthew Macfadyen, look on from the bank. Claflin's Logan is a horny young student in his first year at Oxford, where his primary goal is losing his virginity. "The question of my virginity demands total, unswerving ruthlessness," he writes in his diary.

The dedication pays off when he's relieved of his burden by Tess, a lusty, buxom young woman who works, rather appropriately, at the local riding stables. Tess ends up marrying one of Logan's friends but, by this time, he's already met the love of his life: a socialist "undergraduette" called Land Fothergill, who has a cute bob haircut and a free spirit.

They tumble enthusiastically into bed (there's a lot of sex in Any Human Heart) and Land urges him to write a novel "that will change the world". Instead, he writes a racy potboiler called The Woman Factory, about a French prostitute.

The reviewers hate it and so does Land, who ditches him, but it flies off the shelves. On the rebound, Logan -- now played by Macfadyen -- marries the aristocratic but dim Lottie, for money rather than love. She bears him a child but when his literary career begins to stall, he grabs the opportunity to zip off around the world on well-paid journalistic assignments. During the course of his travels, Logan falls for yet another woman, a feisty, sexy BBC researcher called Freya, and finds himself bumping up against some of the most famous figures in history. It's this element of the story that provides Any Human Heart with its scope.

Though Logan is essentially cynical -- and quite the selfish s**t -- things tend to happen around him. He briefly meets Winston Churchill in a urinal and gives way on the golf course to the Prince of Wales (Tom Hollander) and his American mistress, Wallace Simpson (Gillian Anderson).

He drinks himself into a stupor with Ernest Hemingway in Paris and is introduced to a suave chap called Ian Fleming.

"What does Fleming do?" he asks his friend.

"Not the faintest," comes the reply, "but he has the most fabulous collection of pornography!"

The first part ends with Logan abandoning Lottie once again to cover the Spanish Civil War. Coming after the thin gruel of ITV's Downton Abbey, this is a chunky Sunday night feast you can really get your teeth into.


Any Human Heart ****