Saturday 24 February 2018

TV Guide: What the Dickens will they do next?

BBC One's new 20-part series, Dickensian, throws many of the writer's best-loved characters together. So, asks Emily Hourican, can it work?

Tuppence Middleton
Tuppence Middleton

For lovers of Dickens and lovers of drama, a considerable frisson of excitement must have been generated by the news of BBC One's flagship new series, Dickensian. Now, obviously the BBC have done adaptations of Dickens before, all very faithful, some very fine, but this is something entirely different. Dickensian is a weird and hopefully wonderful mash-up of Dickens characters in an imaginative, daring and lavish 20-part series; a kind of superhero squad of all the best bits and people.

Set in 19th century London, across a series of cobbled streets in which the Old Curiosity Shop sits next door to The Three Cripples Pub, with Fagin's den hidden down a murky alley, the characters interact freely with each other in a way that will be irresistible, at least at first, to even casual readers of the novels.

The series is written by former Eastenders scriptwriter Tony Jordan, who is also its executive producer. He has arranged a format of half-hour episodes, each ending with an unashamed cliff-hanger, in perfect soap-opera style. "It's quite a simple concept," Jordan has said. "Take a selection of Dickens's most iconic characters and free them from the narrative of the book. Take them and put them all in one place, and see what happens. Let them interact and see what it's like when Fagin meets Scrooge. I'm not going to pretend to be a Dickens scholar. I've probably watched more TV and film adaptations than I've read books. But I've grown up loving them."

And so the just-released trailer shows Ebenezer Scrooge, star of A Christmas Carol and a thousand Christmases since, quizzed over the murder of Jacob Marley by Stephen Rea's Inspector Bucket (from Bleak House), to which the response is: "Your problem, Inspector, will not be discovering who hated Jacob Marley enough to kill him, but rather finding someone who didn't."

And so the series is off, weaving in and out of the lives of the inhabitants of this corner of old London, each with their dreams, ambitions, secrets and desires, for all the world like a Victorian Coronation Street. Released from the constraints of following the novels, but with all the ready backstories and notorious personality quirks their creator dreamed up for them.

Of course it is not without risks - there will be purists who will gnash their teeth over the liberties taken, but they may not be many. Somehow, knowing what we do about Dickens, his attitude and working methods, there is something entirely credible about this merry re-imagining of his worlds and characters. The freedom of his style, not to mention the episodic way in which he wrote his novels, for serial publication, seems to lend itself quite naturally to an idea such as this. It feels as if Dickens would approve, in a way that Henry James, say, certainly would not.

The enormous cast is pretty much a who's-who of the British acting scene right now, including, alongside Stephen Rea, Pauline Collins as Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, Caroline Quentin as Mrs Bumble, Tuppence Middleton, pictured, as Amelia Havisham, Sophie Rundle as Honoria Barbary from Bleak House, Peter Firth, Omid Djalili, Ned Dennehy, Alexandra Moen, Phoebe Dynevor and many more. All, naturally, are fizzing with excitement at being involved in what may be the most interesting piece of drama the BBC has produced this year. "Dickensian is the most beautiful re-working of the world of Dickens that you could ever imagine," said Rea. "The characters take on a fresh life, and any actor would be mad not to accept the challenge these great scripts offer."

And viewers would be mad not to give this daring and potentially wonderful series a go.

Dickensian, BBC One, December 26, 7pm

Sunday Independent

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