This Christmas sees the premiere of Dickensian, a 20-part series, written by a former EastEnders scriptwriter, described as “a beginners’ guide to Dickens’ books for a soap-loving generation”. (Dickensian airs on Boxing Day at 7pm and 8.30pm on BBC One.) Robert Douglas-Fairhurst was asked to take the role of literary adviser for the series.
‘What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom,’ asks Dickens’s narrator in Bleak House. As the novel develops, it offers various possible answers, including disease, family, money, and friendship. Dickens’s world turns out to be a spider’s web that connects everyone to everyone else: touch it in any one place and the whole structure quivers instantly into life.
But Dickens was also interested in possible connections between his novels. When the sales of Master Humphrey’s Clock started to flag, his solution was to add a guest appearance by Sam Weller, the wisecracking Cockney servant who had previously been such a huge success in The Pickwick Papers. Today we might call it a fictional mashup, like the recent special episode of TV’s Family Guy that saw them meet The Simpsons. At the time it was simply viewed as more evidence that Dickens’s novels were not wholly separate worlds. As G. K. Chesterton later explained, they were rather ‘lengths cut off from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens’. Characters like Sam Weller were not only larger than life; they were also larger than their novels. Trying to keep them between the covers of just one book was like chaining Houdini inside a casket and expecting him to stay there.
The BBC’s new 20-part drama Dickensian takes this idea and develops it into one of the most gleefully audacious pieces of Christmas television for many years. But of course I would say that: I worked on the series as a literary adviser, so expecting an impartial judgment from me is a bit like asking the parents of a child in the school nativity play what they thought of little Jimmy’s star turn as a shepherd or donkey.
The work of a literary adviser is far more straightforward than trying to explain it to other people. In my case, it began with a meeting at the London offices of Red Planet Pictures, at which the show’s creator, Tony Jordan (an ex-EastEnders staff writer who has since been responsible for a string of TV hits including Hustle and Life on Mars), outlined his vision. Dickensian would bring together some of Dickens’s most popular characters – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham, and others – in an imaginary mid-Victorian London where they could interact. We would see the stories existing behind and alongside the ones we already knew. The plot would bring together a murder mystery, a romance, and a rich tangle of other narrative strands. Dickensian would not only be inspired by Dickens’s novels: in its alternating layers of melodrama and comedy, like the ‘streaky bacon’ effect he wrote about in Oliver Twist, its style would also be truly Dickensian.
All of this sounded like a hoot. It was only when I visited the set for the first time, built inside a former warehouse in West London, that I realised the serious ambition of the project. It was huge. An entire London street was being constructed, including immensely detailed interiors for places like The Three Cripples pub and Inspector Bucket’s police station. The cast included Pauline Collins (Mrs Gamp), Anton Lesser (Fagin), Peter Firth (Jacob Marley), and dozens of equally starry actors. There were to be 20 episodes, 6 writers, 4 directors … while carpenters hammered and painters painted, I sat on a bale of straw and wondered what I had let myself in for.
The answer turned out to a hugely rewarding insight into how much care goes into everything that appears on screen. My main tasks included discussing details of the set with the production designer, checking the scripts for historical inaccuracies, and generally doing my best to ensure that the world being created looked and sounded as authentic as possible. Inevitably there were compromises: Miss Havisham’s Satis House is relocated to London, as is the workhouse where we first meet Bumble, and CGI replaces some parts of the world, such as the Thames, that Dickens knew so intimately. But otherwise this is a London that is as battered and mud-spattered as the real thing.
Will viewers enjoy immersing themselves in it? That rather depends on what they are expecting. If they are hoping for cosy chocolate-box Dickens, where every urchin is clad in picturesque rags, and every line of dialogue sounds like a reproduction antique, then they might be disappointed. On the other hand, if they are prepared to surrender to Dickensian’s punchy half-hour episodes, they will discover a world that is as terrifying, surprising, and joyful as anything to be found in the novels that inspired it. Fingers crossed.
Image Credits: All-Star Cast: Tiny Tim (ZAAK CONWAY), Bob Cratchit (ROBERT WILFORT), Emily Cratchit (JENNIFER HENNESSY), Peter Cratchit (BRENOCK O’CONNOR), Martha Cratchit (PHOEBE DYNEVOR), Meriweather Compeyson (TOM WESTON-JONES), Young Amelia Havisham (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON), Arthur Havisham (JOSEPH QUINN), Bill Sikes (MARK STANLEY), Nancy (BETHANY MUIR), Artful Dodger (WILSON RADJOU-PUJALTE), Fagin (ANTON LESSER), Inspector Bucket (STEPHEN REA), Boy (BENJAMIN CAMPBELL), Jacob Marley (PETER FIRTH), Ebeneezer Scrooge (NED DENNEHY), Mr Bumble (RICHARD RIDINGS), Mrs Bumble (CAROLINE QUENTIN), Mrs Gamp (PAULINE COLLINS), Captain James Hawdon (BEN STARR), Honoria Barbary (SOPHIE RUNDLE), Frances Barbary (ALEXANDRA MEON) and Mr Venus (OMID DJALILI) in the BBC Drama Dickensian.