How Dickens has been turned into a soap opera

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Image :Pixabay

It’s a risky premise.

Take a large handful of characters from some of the best known and most widely read 19th century novels in the English language, all written by an author so famous, an adjective has been coined to sum up the flavour of his works. Shake these characters together – regardless if they originally shared the same pages or not – weave them around a murder mystery, and fling them at the television screen to see if the idea sticks.

What the humbug are you talking about, you mad limey besom?

I hear you cry.

Well, to the uninitiated – I suspect anyone living outside the UK – I’m talking about Dickensian (there’s that adjective I mentioned early!).

The creators have taken characters from Dicken’s Bleak House, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend and possibly more books I’m too poorly read to recognise and had them all live in the same London neighbourhood at the same time, frequenting the same pub and shops and money lenders.

Now, if you’re thinking this Victorian-set soap opera sounds like a recipe for disaster, you could be right.

The project is overseen by Tony Jordan, best known for writing hundreds of scripts for Eastenders, the UK’s most depressing, grimy (East London-based) soap. It’s a show known for hard storylines including rape, murder and suicide – and all in an early evening time slot.

So, Dickensian could have been a trashy, nasty, sensationalist way of stamping on Charles Dicken’s oeuvre. And there’s nothing more painful than having someone stamp on your oeuvre. Oeuvres, my friend are not for stamping on.

But I don’t think it is.

The clever thing the writers have done is gather the characters together before we see them in their respective books. So we have the novelty of seeing Miss Haversham when she’s still a pretty young thing, full of girlish promise, of seeing Bill Sykes adore Nancy – of seeing Scrooge in full money-grabbing, tight-fisted, pre-redemption glory.

For anyone who has read the books, it’s a melancholy experience.

We know the fates of Nancy, Miss Haversham, Little Nell and the future Lady Dedlock, and we watch them stumbling towards their respective, unpleasant and sticky ends, helpless to warn them of how much trouble lies ahead and how to avoid it.

The production is up to the Beeb’s usual high standards – the acting is generally great, the sets and costumes fantastic, the dialogue has the right tone and the mystery intriguing.

It’s been a fascinating watch so far and I can’t wait to see if the murderer is one we know well – Artful Dodger? Fagin? Surely not the sweet, kindly Bob Cratchit?

So, the question I want to ask you lovely people is this – what do you think of writers who take famous characters and do as they will with them? Do you think we should leave well alone? Have you watched Dickensian and if so, what did you think?

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If you’d like a quick overview of Dickensian’s main characters, take a look here.

 

Books in the Blood 17: why reading the paperback is better than revering the hardback

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

When I was a kid, the way we kept books in our house reflected our attitudes to reading.

My mum had a shelf in the kitchen-diner, jostling with well-thumbed Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer novels and factual history books with tatty dust covers. The books were close to the table, well-used, accessible. My mum did – and still does – read incessantly, so she always needed something absorbing to hand, even if she was in the middle of making a white sauce or slicing a gammon joint at the time. Books were an everyday essential to be consumed along with the gammon and white sauce.

I don’t remember having a bookshelf of my own and as I caught the reading bug from my mum and like her always had a book ‘on the go’, I suspect I ‘shelved’ mine on the floor. To say my bedroom was untidy would be to seriously underestimate the health and safety – and hygiene – implications. Imagine the contents of every chest of drawers, wardrobe and toy cupboard in a nine year old’s bedroom – the pink denim flares, the Sindy dolls, the Teddy bears … the amputated limbs and severed heads of Sindys and bears. Now imagine all of that tipped on the floor and mixed with orange squash, crushed Bourbons, mouldy tea cups and Toffo wrappers, with the vague whiff of stale socks and you’ll be getting somewhere close to the ‘experience’ that was my room.

The tragedy is, of course, that when I eventually did clean and tidy this biohazard, I probably killed a cure to some exotic disease along the way. Cleanliness: potentially disastrous for the future of mankind.

My dad treated books in a much less cavalier fashion.

His education had not been the best. It’s not that he wasn’t intelligent, but I suspect he had undiagnosed dyslexia and as he was at school in the 1950s when dyslexic kids were usually filed under ‘slow and lazy’ he was never given the option of Further or Higher Education – manual work was his destiny.

I think because of this, dad put reading and education on a pedestal. He saw them as gateways to a better life, a kinder, easier life. Maybe that’s why he collected serious books – nothing lightweight, nothing ‘fun’, always educational, informative or worthy.

The books I remember most clearly were the complete works of Charles Dickens. Green leather bound with gold lettering on the spines, they sat in a row on the shelf, a little out of place on the plasticised hardboard – too perfect to be touched.

I remember him telling me how wonderful Dickens was. How Oliver Twist’s Fagin could charm and cheat and Bill Sikes would terrify, and the murder of Nancy would leave you breathless, sleepless, drenched in the poor girl’s blood. How for every Quilp, Wackford Squeers and Uriah Heep that emerges to blight the lives of our heroes, there’ll be a Peggotty, Joe Gargery or Mr Brownlow to help them.

He clearly loved the books, but I was nine or ten at the time and more into reading The Beano or finding my lost Misty comics than slipping onto a nineteenth century idiom. It was too challenging for me – to boring.

I never read a single one of those bright shiny tomes. They stayed on the shelf, remaining relics to gaze on, rather than worlds to experience.

The Works of Charles Dickens have become Books in the Blood not through my dad’s copies, but through ones I bought myself years later. Mine were only cheap paperbacks – not a scrap of green leather or gold leaf anywhere. But the words were the same – those amazing characters, old London brought to life – and that was what mattered.