In the first few moments of new BBC drama Dickensian we met Mrs Gamp (the drunk nurse from Martin Chuzzlewit) who is tending to an ailing little Nell (from The Old Curiosity Shop).
Up popped Jacob Marley (Scrooge’s late and unlamented business associate from A Christmas Carol) and Oliver Twist’s arch miser Fagin. And it wasn’t long before Bill Sykes, and Nancy (also from Oliver Twist) and the lawyer Jaggers and Miss Havisham (from Great Expectations) hoved into view….
This was writer Tony Jordan bringing together some of the best-loved characters from Charles Dickens’ amazing novels and plonking them in the same London within a few feet of each other.
But the first and most obvious question to ask is this: they may have the same names and look like they are described in the books but who are these people? Can they really be said to be Dickens characters?
The great Victorian novelist invented these richly drawn characters to fit into the novels he wrote. He was a storyteller, first and foremost, someone who wrote episodic narratives driven by the unstopabble force of his ingeniously-crafted plots. He populated his books with amazing characters, of course, but tearing them away from their stories is to essentially denude them of their essential life and being.
Of course we all know where this comes from. It’s an oft-repeated claim that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing soap opera. It is a claim that is repeated so often it now seems to pass as fact, as if we in the modern age can say with certainty quite what he would be doing.
How do we know?
Now I have no doubt that there will be many millions of people who will love this – and I want to take nothing away from you – but as you have probably gathered by now I was not among them. What this felt like to me was a weird Doctor Who episode where the Doctor enters some kind of weird alien dream world populated by characters formed from half-remembered dreams of his reading of English Victorian literature. I half expected Bob Cratchit to rip his face off and reveal that he is actually a Zygon before disclosing dire warnings that the world is in mortal danger.
If I am quite honest I couldn’t see the point of this exercise which failed to teach us anything new about any of Dickens’ characters, or allowed them to develop in any meaningful way.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. I thought the introduction of Miss Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) was interesting, but that was because she isn’t really the character Dickens created ripped from the pages of Great Expectations.
In the 1861 original she is, of course the bitter jilted bride surrounded by cobwebs and bitter memories, but here she is presented in her youthful incarnation, before her betrayal at the hands of her brother and Compeyson. But, by the end of episode one, she’sapparently fated to experience the tragedy all over again. (Miss H’s brother who feels cheated out of her inheritance has clearly hatched a plan with a dashing young blade Meriweather Compeyson, played by Tom Weston-Jones).
Jordan has also rather cleverly managed to fashion was whodunit plot out of the death of Marley, found clobbered to death at the end of the first episode.
But if I am honest I am not sure I will be hanging around to find out more. This is fast-paced, well written soapy drama. But it’s also, for me, a messy pudding that is – but really isn’t – Dickens.
Dickensian continues on BBC1 on Sunday December 27 at 7.30pm