“We’ve all been educated in costume drama but this isn’t really costume drama,” explains Ralph while giving a guided tour of the set located in Greenford, west London. “I’ve created what I would call reverse science fiction. We’re entering a world that we embrace but which is also a deceit. That is the fantasy of it – it’s not high Victorian, low Victorian, mid Victorian, it’s just Dickensian.”
The set reflects the imaginative stew of Dickens’s storylines, which will see Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea) team up with Mr Venus (Omid Djalili) on the trail of a murderer. Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) will be seen in the build-up to her disastrous wedding-day jilting as the major beneficiary of her father’s fortune. Meanwhile, expect to see Caroline Quentin as Oliver Twist’s Mrs Bumble joining Mrs Gamp (Pauline Collins) from Martin Chuzzlewit as a duo doing a fair impression of Victorian Women Behaving Badly.
In creating the set, Michael Ralph has clearly immersed himself in all aspects of the period, in particular the work of the pre-eminent Victorian social researcher, Henry Mayhew. “From the early to the mid-1800s, London’s population increased threefold,” he explains. “It was metropolitan chaos and we’re in the middle of it.”
He delights in sharing his discoveries as they impact on the set. Pointing to a butterfly taxidermy in the bedroom of Bleak House’s Honoria Barbary, Ralph says, “The Victorians loved taxidermy. They had frogs dressed as boxers. They’d have things like a hawk charged with murdering a sparrow and the judge and jury would all be different animals. There was a dark fascination with anything to do with death.” Look closely at this picture and you’ll find Omid Djalili holding a stuffed, dressed cat