Christmas is long gone and some of its televisual pleasures have been explored in the CST blogs by Kenneth Longden (https://cstonline.net/bbc-christmas and https://cstonline.net/sherlock-abominable) and Lorna Jowett (https://cstonline.net/not-so-cosy). But one Christmas special which began on Boxing Day on BBC1 still lingers on. Dickensian (Red Planet Pictures) made the usual Christmas use of a Charles Dickens’ storyworld complete with Victorian urchins and snowy streets. But unusually the serial is being screened in twenty 30 minutes episodes and so in the first week of February, with the screening of episodes 14 and 15, we will be only three-quarters of the way through. ( See the BBC website)
If you aren’t a Dickens fan and don’t enjoy classic adaptations, you may be tempted to stop reading at this point. But in this blog I am not going to go into detail about the serial itself (though I hope to do so in due course) but to use it to make some points about serial narratives and how they can be viewed. I hope these points which relate to narrative organisation, spoilers and characterisation in popular adaptations will be of interest to those for whom period drama is a turn-off.
Dickensian is a sort of adaptation. Over ten hours, it takes characters and locations from some of Dickens’ novels and makes up different stories with them.
In particular, it is a prequel for stories from two of the novels, Great Expectations and Bleak House. We meet Miss Havisham before she became the frozen character in Great Expectations who had been jilted at the altar and Miss Barbary before she too froze into the persona of Lady Dedlock, hiding the fact of her illegitimate child in Bleak House. Dickensian is also a detective story in which Inspector Bucket (from Bleak House) in the first episode takes up the case of the murder of Joseph Marley (who had died a year before the opening of Dickens’ much-adapted work, A Christmas Carol).
The continual referencing of so many Dickens’ characters in the early episodes was brave since it made for a tricky opening. The sheer number of characters and storylines was potentially confusing as a number of critics pointed out and had the viewer scanning the magnificent set trying to find something to hang on to. And it almost seemed that some knowledge of the books was a disadvantage as I found myself asking questions like ‘Where does Samuel Wegg come from?’ and wondering where Joe the road sweeper or indeed Oliver Twist was. Bucket’s murder enquiry provided the essential narrative line with Stephen Rea quietly menacing in his pursuit of possible leads.
But for me the serial really established itself in episodes 4 and 5 which were written by Sarah Phelps, an experienced soap writer and adaptor. At an RTS event on adaptation in November, Phelps spoke of her experience of adapting J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and emphasised the importance of finding the ‘through line’ which would take the viewer to the ‘beating heart of the story’. With The Casual Vacancy Phelps said that she had found that line by following through one of the teenage characters. Dickensian had more characters and more storylines but it seems that Phelps followed the same principle. At the beginning of episode 4, Phelps pulled together the story line around three young women – Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle) with her dashing young soldier,
Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) whose fortune is attracting the interest of a potential suitor and Martha Cratchit (Phoebe Dynevor) whose imminent wedding will be threatened by the arrest of her father for Marley’s murder.
The stories of these young women are boldly woven into a common thread about the possibilities and limitations of female action and with this narrative line firmly in place, the other characters could be dropped into place around them.
The second point I want to make is about spoilers. Tony Jordan, the producer and main writer, and the BBC press material stress that Dickensian is for those who don’t know Dickens and the BBC website goes in for spoiler alerts in a dutiful way. But unlike the BBC’s Bleak House (2005), about which similar claims were made, it seems to me that this is a rare adaptation which actually works better if you know the stories – not necessarily from the novels but from previous adaptations or general cultural references. When you know Amelia Havisham’s fate, watching her guileless yet spirited response to the tactics of her seducer Compeyson (Tom Weston-Jones) is unbearably tense and poignant.
Similarly, the sacrifice of Honoria in saving her bankrupt father by marrying the wealthy Lord Dedlock is made the more wretched when we know that she will meet her death, pursued by Bucket, in a nearby graveyard. Knowing the ending doesn’t make you lose interest in the story. Perhaps it is a lesson from soaps; in the end it is not what happens that matters but how it happens.
Finally, one of the curious things about Dickensian is how it strips away the accretions of the previous versions on which many in its audience will depend for their knowledge. Despite much sometimes playful Dickensian referencing, the characters have a freshness about them which is backed up by the blessed lack of the kind of over-the-top acting which plagues Dickens adaptations. Scrooge (Nick Dennehy) is stripped of all that jolly Christmas spirit which is a feature of many popular adaptations. Here, he is a genuinely menacing figures, pursuing the grim capitalist logic of money with indiscriminate harshness. Mrs Gamp (Pauline Collins) has a comic edge but is also clear that she is a genuine alcoholic, using any cunning means possible to the next shot of gin into her shaking hands. And it’s made clear that Nancy, familiar from so many versions of Oliver Twist, is a prostitute owned and hired out by Fagin. Played with beautiful grace by Bethany Muir, the sentimentality that can overpower this character (‘As long as he needs me . . .’) is stripped away to leave a young woman who is both pragmatic and innocent in the abusive world she finds herself.
Adaptations Studies scholars often emphasise the layering and intertextuality of any new version of a familiar character but here we get the opportunity to see the characters anew as those layers seem to peel away.
Dickensian is a project which Tony Jordan nurtured for many years. At a well-attended seminar in October 2015, jointly organised by Royal Holloway’s Centre for Victorian Studies and the London Screenwriting Research Seminar, Jordan said that his inspiration had been Dickens’ fantastic range of characters and his admiration for his skills both as a writer and a showman who understood the commercial necessities of publishing. Dickensian was, he said, set in Dickens’ mind not in Victorian London and reminded us about the famous unfinished painting, ‘Dickens’ Dream’ (1875) by the artist, etcher and illustrator, Robert William Buss.
It was a brave decision of the BBC to give Jordan 10 hours of primetime, four more than Andrew Davies’ more prestigious adaptation of War and Peace. I’m not sure that Dickensian is really ‘Comfort Television’ as discussed by Tom Nicholls in his blog last week although I agreed with a number of his comments on the pleasures it offers in terms of contemporary resonances and quality of performance. Dickensian is I think different from the conventional period drama and those differences relate to questions about adaptation and narrative organisation. At the Royal Holloway seminar, Jordan said that he already had the second series written and was well into the third. I hope the BBC is brave enough to commission the second series.
Christine Geraghty is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Her publications on television include a contribution to the 1981 BFI monograph on Coronation Street; Women and Soap Opera (Polity, 1991); and My Beautiful Laundrette (I B Taurus, 2004). Her BFI TV Classic on Bleak House was published in 2012 and her reflections on the beginning of her work on soap opera appears in ‘The BFI women and film study group 1976 – ?’, Renewing Feminisms, Radical Narratives, Fantasies and Futures in Media Studies H. Thornham and E. Weissmann (eds) I B Taurus 2013. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of British Cinema and Television and sits on the advisory boards of a number of journals, including Screen.