After coming back from Canada, I noted that I had some catching-up to do on the iPlayer – and first up was the start of a surprisingly original take on the works of Charles Dickens.
I describe the BBC show Dickensian as ‘surprisingly original’ because I can’t believe that no-one had previously thought to take characters from different Dickens stories and put them into one story. Thus, we have a situation where a young Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the future Lady Dedlock from Bleak House are best friends (although I guess they didn’t bond over the fact that both of those characters have been played by Gillian Anderson in previous, straightforward Dickens adaptations), Mr and Mrs Bumble from Oliver Twist are having Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times over for dinner, half the cast seems to have borrowed money from Ebenezer Scrooge and/or pawned something in the Old Curiosity Shop (or, if they’re really desperate, sold their valuables to Fagin), and Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend runs a pub whose clientele includes Bill Sikes and Nancy from Oliver Twist, the afore-mentioned Mr Bumble when he needs a break from Mrs B., Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, Bob Cratchett and an unseen Mr Pickwick. Oh, and to top things off, Inspector Bucket from Bleak House is investigating the murder of Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley.
This time, Marley was not dead to begin with – although, thanks to his as-yet-unidentified assailant, he was by the end of the first episode. Like Dickens’s stories themselves, Dickensian boasts a cast of many acting out various storylines which occasionally coincide with each other – and, like many a Dickens adaptation, it has a number of actors and actresses who you may recognise from somewhere else (among others, there’s Tuppence Middleton, Caroline Quentin, Stephen Rea, a couple of blokes from Spooks and Omid Djalili as a scene-stealing Mr Venus who, it turns out, is a chiropractor and the early Victorian equivalent of a forensics expert as well as a taxidermist).
There have been quite a few alternative twists on Dickens in the past – some time ago, ITV did a spin-off series following the (mis)adventures of Mr Micawber, while there has also been a novel in which Sydney Carton escapes the guillotine by agreeing to become a spy, setting up a Flashman-esque adventure at the time of the French Revolution which I really need to get my hands on sooner or later.
This one, though, is as far as I can see the first to throw characters from different Dickens stories together, and as a result it’s a real mish-mash of plots and sub-plots, albeit a highly watchable one. As well as Inspector Bucket’s investigation, in which several characters are of course suspects, we’ve got characters who are there for comedy value (the Bumbles, for there’s nothing quite as absurd as a couple with unrealistic expectations of social advancement, as well as a sub-plot between gin-loving Mrs Gamp, Silas Wegg and the latter’s wooden leg that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On film), a bit of social commentary (mainly concerning the twin spectres of debt and poverty, ongoing themes in Dickens’s works) as well as a few scenarios that are very much the precursors to the books.
Herein lies a problem for Dickensian – because some of the sub-plots are the events that precede those of the books, we know what’s going to happen. Amelia Havisham, for example, has become engaged to the villainous Merryweather Compeyson. If my knowledge of Great Expectations is anything to go by, this will result in her being jilted and defrauded, leading to a lifetime of hating men while wearing her wedding dress and sitting at the table in her decaying mansion, wedding breakfast untouched. Similarly, as far as the Bleak House characters go, we know that Honoria Barbary is going to marry the elderly Sir Leicester Dedlock even though she’s expecting Captain Hawdon’s child who will be raised by her spinsterly sister. Bill and Nancy? That’s not going to end well. Oh, and no need to worry about Tiny Tim being ill – his dad’s boss is going to bankroll all the medical treatment he needs after experiencing a ghostly vision.
Unless, of course, the writers have a few surprises in store. They’ve already departed from one Dickens storyline by ensuring that Little Nell doesn’t die – so who’s to say that, this time, some of the others aren’t going to get the ending that their creator gave them? That would liven things up a bit as, the murder investigation aside, it’s all looking a little too predictable (as I write, the show is 13 episodes into a 20-part series)
The main thing I’ve noticed, though, is how much like a soap opera this all is, even down to the cliffhanger endings of each half-hour long episode (Bob Cratchett getting arrested on his daughter’s wedding day was a good one, while the reveal of Honoria’s pregnancy was anything but a surprise for reasons outlined above). Could that be because the man behind this series is one of the writers from EastEnders? Or maybe it’s to do with the original author, with his multitude of characters and storylines? We may know of his stories as novels, but when they originally appeared they did so in regular instalments, spread over the course of months and even years, and he used cliffhanger endings to ensure that his readers remained interested enough to buy the next part.
Charles Dickens didn’t just provide the world with a large amount of interestingly-named and unforgettable characters. He also invented the concept that we know of today as the soap opera.