Scrooge, Mr Bumble and Miss Havisham together at last – it was the best of times! For entertainment value, Dickensian has lived up to the hype, with the colourful array of characters providing comedy and drama, as one would rightly expect from such impressive source material and a stellar cast. Yet for the hardcore Dickens fan, something has been lost in translation. (Spoilers ahead!)
Let’s start off with the good things: it’s straightforward, enjoyable escapism. There’s a sense of home comfort, its debt to Eastenders, where series creator Tony Jordan made his name, evident. All the characters live together in the same street and frequent the same pub, and they all know each other like a close-knit bunch in Midsomer or Cranford. It all looks very nice, rickety yet slick, as one would expect from a BBC Dickens adaptation. What would elsewhere be an excess of different characters is handled efficiently, through a competent script and able performers. A host of recognisable faces bring something new to age-old favourites like Nancy and Tiny Tim. Stephen Rea steals the show as Inspector Bucket, brilliant as ever with his intimately precise facial movements and enunciations, presenting a very Dickensian combination of humility and self-assuredness. Caroline Quentin as Mrs Bumble and Pauline Collins as Mrs Gamp stand out for their comic interventions.
The overarching plot of the series is actually a well-trodden TV storyline, surprisingly simple given the ingenuity of the premise. Jacob Marley is murdered, and everyone from Grandfather to Fagin is a suspect. Like all whodunit specials from the shooting of Phil Mitchell to Mr Burns, various characters are given the motive and opportunity, leading to a host of suspects. And this springboard for the drama is where the show falls down, at least for those already familiar with Dickens. Such is the wit and invention of the premise that it’s not clear how to engage with personalities retrofitted for this murder mystery.
The characters arrive in this story with a lot of baggage of their previous tales, and so they are often not properly developed through the actual events of the television show. In an original and organic narrative, the viewer or the reader comes to understand a character as they develop over the course of the story. In Dickensian, it’s not clear whether we are expected to bring all our prior knowledge to the table, and if so, how that impinges on our understanding of the characters’ narratives as they play out on screen.
Take Scrooge: is he an out-and-out villain, and to remain like that for the whole twenty episodes – or will he experience some Pauline conversion as in the original text? We know from A Christmas Carol about his troubled childhood and romantic past, but there’s scarce room for sympathy with the Ebenezer on display here. If we simply rely on what is portrayed on television, that seems to betray the excitement at the innovation for the show, which is clearly based on people’s interest at combining characters with whom we have become accustomed.
Basically, it’s unclear what trajectory each character is following, and how their Dickensian story compares to their reality in the novels. We were confronted with dramatic music at the end of the first episode when it was revealed that we had been watching Miss Havisham inherit Satis House to the anger of her brother, so clearly there is an expectation by the creators that the audience will engage with their prior Dickensian knowledge. The stories in Dickensian of the Barbary and Havisham families occur before the narratives of Bleak House and Great Expectations, but if these stories are just to play out as written, then we know, for example, the ultimate fate of Miss Havisham, and there is a distinct failure to capitalise on the dramatic irony of her situation. Then again, maybe the whole story will change – after all, Little Nell is still alive! This willingness to rework the source material might be creative and innovative, but it is inconsistent.
With this heavy reliance upon our original knowledge of the characters, the humorous portrayals of iconic characters are in danger of descending into thumbnail sketches, not much beyond a catchphrase and their quirky behaviour. Yes, Mrs Gamp’s likes a drink at any time of day is amusing, but what else is she actually going to do for twenty episodes?
Dickensian – which incidentally is a terrible title, when What the Dickens? is readily available as an iconic phrase – might find it difficult to sustain itself for ten hours of TV drama. It’s a bright idea that might just run out of steam. The episodic nature of the show is not helped by the BBC chopping and changing its place in the schedule – it happened before with Bleak House and Little Dorrit. A brilliant twist on the standard period drama, it teeters on the edge of falling into a sketch show of figures from Dickens’ Rogues’ Gallery, a Victorian version of The League of Gentlemen played straight. For now, there is enough in Dickensian to keep watching, not least to find out whodunit? My money’s on Mrs Cratchit.