Charles Pooter lives a perfectly ordinary, totally uninteresting life in late Victorian London. However he doesn’t see why this humdrum existence should prevent him from sharing his thoughts with the world. “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I’ve never heard of and I fail to see, just because I don’t happen to be a ‘somebody’, why my diary should not be just as interesting in its way”.
Written by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody was originally published in Punch magazine between 1888–89 with an expanded book edition appearing in 1892. Although it received only cursory attention at the time, it slowly began to be appreciated as a comic masterpiece as the decades rolled by (Evelyn Waugh once called it “the funniest book in the world”).
There had been several television productions prior to this 2007 adaptation by Andrew Davies. In 1964, Ken Russell directed a forty minute film version for the BBC, shot in the style of a silent movie with the text delivered as a voice-over. A more traditional production was mounted in 1979, with Terrence Hardiman as Pooter.
Given that the novel is written in the form of a diary, the obvious difficulty for any adapter is how you keep Pooter’s distinctive voice (which, after all, is the motor which drives the book). Back in 1979 they went down the traditional full-cast route, but Davies elected to restrict Pooter’s world to just the man himself.
So this is a one-man show, with Hugh Bonneville our sole focus for the duration (four 30 minute episodes). There is an inherent danger with this approach – if Bonneville doesn’t engage then we’re in trouble – but he’s on sparking form right from the beginning. Within the first few minutes Pooter’s character has been laid bare – he’s somewhat pompous and self-important, meaning that most of the minor traumas which constitute his daily life are caused by his own character defects (although he never seems to realise this).
Pooter sets the scene by giving the audience a tour of his house (although the diary is mentioned, he delivers his monologues direct to camera, thereby helping to draw the audience in). “We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; after a week we scarcely noticed them at all. And apart from the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience”.
In the first episode Pooter sketches the cast of characters who make up his world – friends such as Cummings and Gowing and his wife Carrie. She’s clearly a long suffering women, something which is made plain after Pooter begins to paint various items in the house red. “Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind, is the best colour), and I painted the coal-scuttle and the backs of our edition of Shakespeare, the binding of which had almost worn out. I then painted the bath red and was delighted with the result. Carrie, unfortunately, was not. In fact we had a few words about it. She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red. I replied: ‘That’s merely a matter of taste.’ Unaccountably this seemed to annoy Carrie even more”.
There are further delights to come as the episodes progress. His son Lupin is a problem, as is his wife-to-be Daisy. “Coming home from church Carrie and I met Lupin, Daisy Mutlar, and her brother. Daisy was introduced to us, and we walked home together. We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law. My heart sank. She is a very big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin. I did not even think her good-looking”.
Susannah White’s direction is naturally limited by the confines of the house, but thanks to numerous changes of costume from Bonneville we’re given the illusion that time is passing – otherwise the fragmentary nature of some of the diary entries would seem somewhat jarring. Edmund Butt’s music (a solo piano) also helps to underscore the scene changes and like the best incidental music manages to compliment the on-screen action rather than dominate it.
Entirely dependant on a strong performance from the actor playing Pooter, Hugh Bonneville certainly doesn’t disappoint on this score. Although the production has a restricted, theatrical, air, after a while his storytelling skill is such that it’s easy to visualise the people he’s talking about and they start to become real, breathing characters.
Originally released as a R2 DVD by 2Entertain in 2010, The Diary of a Nobody has now been brought back into print by Second Sight. All four episodes are contained on a single disc and English subtitles are featured. There are no issues with the sound or picture that I could see.
An evergreen comic classic, the world of Charles Pooter continues to entertain and this adaptation by Andrew Davies manages to capture the best elements from the original book. Recommended.
The Diary of a Nobody is released by Second Sight on the 12th of June 2017. RRP £19.99.