It’s hard to think of many figures more influential on popular culture than Charles Dickens. The prolific author was a phenomenon in his day, and since then his books have only travelled further around the world.
One of those inspired by his works was former EastEnders writer Tony Jordan, who appears tonight on BBC4’s The Secret Life of Books to examine Great Expectations.
Given Dickens’s legacy, it’s a surprise that he’s only been played onscreen a handful of times, usually in a fairly minor role. Still, the times he has popped up have been memorable – here are our picks of the best.
Ralph Fiennes – The Invisible woman
Fiennes also directed this film from last year, which dramatised the real-life affair between a middle-aged Dickens and the 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). While it was somewhat criticised for its deliberate pace, Fiennes received plaudits for bringing a complex and sanguine portrait of the author to the screen.
The Great Gonzo – The Muppet Christmas Carol
Talk about stunt casting – the decision to cast daredevil Muppet The Great Gonzo as Dickens was an unusual choice by the Jim Henson company, but it paid off in a Christmas classic that’s still fondly remembered every festive season.
Mark Heap – Desperate Romantics
The Green Wing and Friday Night Dinner star brought his own brand of tortured weirdness to the role of a joyless Dickens, often criticizing the romping of the young artists the series followed (played by Aidan Turner, Rafe Spall and Samuel Barnett). Still, its depiction of the author as a tireless social campaigner is spot-on.
Derek Jacobi – The Riddle
It’s safe to say that this supernatural 2007 thriller isn’t the most conventional depiction of Dickens, with Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi doing double service as both the author and a present-day tramp who teams up with Vinnie Jones to solve a murder involving an unpublished Dickens manuscript. Please Sir, no more.
If any man can lay claim to the role of Dickens it’s Callow, by sheer force of repetition if nothing else. Most will remember him as Dickens in the third episode of the revived series of Doctor Who in 2005 (helping Christopher Eccleston battle off some ghost-like aliens), later returning to the role for a quick cameo in the 2011 series finale.
However, he’s also starred as the author in films Christmas Carol: The Movie, and Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale, a one-man show called The Mystery of Charles Dickens and again on TV in 1996’s An Audience with Charles Dickens. He’s clearly a big fan…
The Secret Life of Books is on BBC Four at 8:30pm