It’s all abaht family, ain’t’ it… Eastenders writer Tony Jordan takes the rich tapestry of Dickens’ London characters from the body of novels and creates a complex back story in which they all knew each other – a unified prequel-of-everything. And what better way to kick-start the whole thing than with the murder of Jacob Marley?
Cue comedy detective Inspector Bucket combing a snowy, gas-lit London of Dickens’ eccentric, warped, twisted, abused characters. But without the young protagonists of Dickens finest works – no Pip, Oliver, Nickleby or Copperfield – to provide the moral centre, this Victorian Christmas Assortment slides quickly into soap-land melodrama of dysfunctional families; less Victorian than Victoria Wood parody.
In twenty badly scheduled episodes over the Holiday Season, you realise Jordan’s brilliant idea off the jotter pad should have stayed there. Re-hashing and adapting author’s classic works is a hit and miss affair, so wholesale plunder comes with a whole new scale of risk.
Yes, the BBC excels at costume drama and adaptation, and is particularly reliable as we’ve noted over the years with productions such as Great Expectations. But, give a soap writer free run of the Dickens canon he freely admits he hasn’t completed (few do, to be fair), and even the BBC’s best are going to struggle.
It seems we’ve all ignored the obvious; Dickens, the great literary author was mainly a low-brow, weekly serial writer of popular domestic melodrama, largely about the common people, frequently about the criminal classes. Eastenders, then. It’s all pure soap. So that’s what Jordan serves up.
We have the Havisham funeral and reading of the will, a miserable Cratchett Christmas, local loan sharks Scrooge and Marley falling out like the Mitchell brothers, Fagin procuring Nancy for Marley, Bill Sykes getting jealous. There’s the first meeting of Miss Havisham with Compeyson in step-brother Arthur’s revenge plot. Little Nell hasn’t quite expired yet in the Old Curiosity Shop. Then Marley, the bruiser, the heavy, the bully, played with pit-bull menace by Peter Firth (Spooks) is found dead. Cue the drums, lousy piano music, end credits – oh, sorry, that is Eastenders.
Dickensian, in common usage, is an adjective, not a title. Dickens left a rich body of work, overflowing with little caricatures, pocket portraits and archetypes who help and hinder the protagonists. But these are all the supporting characters, the friends, villains and provocateurs.
The reason they are so well-loved is because they come to us fully-formed and in limited quantity; they make the individual stories come alive, but the stories are not about them. Trying to make a giant patchwork quilt linking them all up as an ensemble cast only goes to show what a hopeless and mostly dislikeable bunch they really are.
Which presents Jordan two issues for the audience.
Let’s say half the audience knows (some of) the novels and know exactly where these characters end up – exactly. You could treat the exercise as a sort of Greek tragedy, unfolding with predestined inevitability. Or you could ask what’s the point? If Jordan is to deliver these characters to their precise entry points in the individual novels, then very little that goes on here can make any difference at all. We’re just along for the ride… sometimes that can work, like bio-pics, over-familiar Shakespeare – or Greek tragedy. Except Jordan is trying to fill in the gaps that Dickens himself left as gaps because he didn’t need them filled. Either it’s a work of imaginative fiction, or Jordan’s just making s*** up to fill some costume drama time. And I don’t believe Mr Charles Dickens Esq. gave permission for that.
Say the other half the audience doesn’t know the novels. In this case Jordan has to tell us everything we need to know, the identity and significance of every character, and initiate all of their plot strands leading into the individual novels. He can’t. There isn’t time. Even if he could, nobody writes Dickens like Dickens. Sometimes, even Dickens struggled to write like Dickens. It’s a tough job. Tougher than writing a soap.
So here we are, flitting from character to character, trying to catch all their names and playing some weird literary top-trumps going ‘ooh, it’s her from thingy, and him from whatsit, and who’s he, who’s she, which book are they from?’ I studied a huge chunk of Dickens, but there’s folk wandering in from Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend, Dombey and others – I don’t have a clue who they are, but they’re all dour, disappointed and miserable so I don’t really care.
Given the substantial ensemble cast, we spend a lot of time playing that game under gas-lamps, snow, and candlelight, in dingy cellars and dark drawing rooms, with a lot of designer Victorian squalor, lit very prettily like something out of a Christmas catalogue, and dressed in immaculate detail from props to wigs to costumes.
The old stagers in the cast are having a ball, the youngsters, including Tuppence Middleton (Imitation Game) are very earnest and slightly bland. For all the fine performances, including great tragi-comic business from veterans Karl Johnson (Mr Turner, Hot Fuzz) and Pauline Collins, sour malevolence from Ned Dennehy’s Scrooge – and we haven’t even got to hang-dog Stephen Rea as Bucket- tonally, something is off.
Either we know that Scrooge is heading for his moment of supernatural salvation, or we don’t; here, he is the unrepentant sinner and a very nasty piece of work, so why in either case do we care? Amelia Havisham is already a rather chilly spinster and we know where that goes, or not, so why should we care? Fagin is out and out an East End pimp. I’m not sure Dickens intended for us to like him, why should we care? And Bill Sykes is Bill Sykes; only ever a villain, so don’t tell me, Mr Jordan that I’m going to respond to whatever tragic inner life you’ve invented for him. Why do I care about Arthur Havisham, the spoilt brat, sulky teenage wastrel? And why does Compeyson need to take his shirt off to demonstrate what a ridiculously buffed-up gym bunny he is?
And the tragi-comic Cratchett family are just the wrong side of Cor Blimey Guv’nor Cockney Sparrer East End chirpiness that tips the scales, then we’re not far off South Park pastiche and the mood is broken…
I suppose what I’m saying is that like any Victorian Christmas Assortment off the supermarket shelf, Dickensian is very well packaged and presented, but it is totally ersatz. Yes, it is very… Dickensian. But what the Dickens is it?
Cue the drums, lousy piano music, end credits. Twenty episodes. If you can find them all. RC
Dickensian – BBC TV, 2015
Writers: Tony Jordan
Genre: Adaptation, drama
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Quinn, Mark Stanley, Robert Wilfort, Ben Starr, Tom Weston-Jones, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Ned Dennehy, Adrian Rawlins, Jennifer Hennessy, Anton Lesser, Ellie Haddington, Alexandra Moen, Karl Johnson, Sophie Rundle, Peter Firth, John Heffernan, Phoebe Dynevor, Richard Ridings, Omid Djalili, Caroline Quentin, Pauline Collins, Bethany Muir, Imogen Faires, Brenock O’Connor, Christopher Fairbank, Richard Cordery, Stephen Rea