Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) – Simply Media DVD Review

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Following the death of his mother in childbirth, the young Oliver Twist (Bruce Prochnik) is placed in the indifferent care of the state.  His childhood is a miserable one and eventually he runs away to London to seek his fortune.  There he encounters the devious Fagin (Max Adrian) who has no compunction in manipulating the trusting and naïve Oliver to serve his own ends ….

Published between February 1837 and April 1839, Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel and remains one of his evergreen tales, evidenced by the numerous film, television and stage adaptations it has inspired.  David Lean’s 1948 film and the stage/film musical by Lionel Bart (Oliver!) are possibly the most memorable, although there have also been multiple television adaptations as well.

This one, broadcast between January and April 1962, was the first BBC version and as might be expected remained very faithful to the original novel.  Constance Cox had already adapted Bleak House and would go on to tackle several other classic Dickens novels during the 1960’s (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewitt, A Tale of Two Cities) although sadly out of those three only a few episodes from A Tale of Two Cities currently exist.

Bruce Prochnik, playing the eponymous Olivier, had a pretty short television career (1961 – 1965) with Olivier Twist by far his most substantial role (he had a handful of later credits in series such as Taxi! and Emergency Ward-10).  It’s interesting to note that post-Olivier he popped up a couple of times on Juke Box Jury.  Clearly this serial had been successful enough to turn him into a household name for a short time.

An early signature moment occurs when Olivier, by this point a starving inmate of the workhouse, timorously asks for another bowl of gruel. There’s a grimy hopelessness about these early episodes. Workhouse life is shown to be hard and unrelenting (with a piece of bread, once a week on Sundays, about the only thing the boys have to look forward to).

Bruce Prochnik

Mr Bumble (Willoughby Goddard), the Parish Beadle, is shocked by Oliver’s behaviour. It’s hard to imagine anybody could have been better cast as Bumble than the corpulant Goddard, who’s always a pleasure to watch.

Olivier’s insurrectionist behaviour makes him an embarrasment to the workhouse board, so they decide to remove the problem. He’s apprenticed to the undertaker Sowerberry (Donald Eccles), although it’s debatable whether he’s better off here than he was in the workhouse. Mrs Sowerberry (Barbara Hicks) certainly has little time for the boy (Oliver’s first meal are the cold scraps which had been left out for the dog). Hicks, who had gone way over the top in Barnaby Rudge, is thankfully more restrained in her brief appearance here.

Once this section of the story is completed, the action moves to London where the innocent Olivier falls in with the worst crowd impossible.  Two very familiar actors (Melvyn Hayes and Alan Rothwell) appear as the Artful Dodger and his wise-cracking sidekick Charley Bates. Both Hayes and Rothwell make for appealing rogues, although their roles in the story are fairly slight.

It’s the grotesque Fagin (Max Adrian) and the intimidating Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughan) who will come to dominate the narrative.  Adrian was a noted classical stage actor who also managed to carve out an impressive film and television career. Across the decades Peter Vaughan would rack up some memorable appearances in Charles Dickens serials and his portrayal of Bill Sikes is a typically impressive one – from the moment we first meet him there’s an air of menace and simmering violence in the air.

The corruption of the green Oliver (Prochnik continues to radiate a sense of wide-eyed innocence) by Fagin, Dodger and Charley is another horrifying and distubing scene. Far removed from the chirpy cockney sing-alongs of Oliver!, this adaptation accurately reflects the bleakness of Dickens’ original novel.

Max Adrian & Bruce Prochnik

As the serial progreases, the plot-threads deepen. Why does a gentleman like Monks (John Carson) consort with the likes of Fagin and why is Monks so insistent that Fagin keeps a tight grip on Oliver? Carson, later to take the lead in Dombey & Son, was one of those actors who enhanced any production he appeared in (his tortured, conflicted Monks is no exception to this rule).

Everybody we’ve met so far has either mistreated Oliver or desired to use him for their own ends, so it’s therefore jolting when he finally runs into somebody who treats him with kindness. Mr Brownlow (George Curzon) initially accused the blameless Oliver of picking his pocket (Dodger and Charley were responsible). The contrite Brownlow takes him home and nurses the emaciated boy back to health.

Now that Oliver has a benevolent benefactor, his luck finally seems to have changed. But Fagin and Sikes, convinced that Oliver intends to inform on them, are determined to snatch him back ….

Bill Sikes’ relationship with the prostitute Nancy (Carmel McSharry) runs through the middle part of the serial with Nancy’s most famous scene – her murder at the hands of a vicious Sikes – proving to be a shocking moment. Although it’s not graphically violent, Vaughan and McSharry manage to give the scene considerable resonance by their performances alone.  Sikes’ clubbing to death of the unfortunate Nancy was deemed to be so disturbing that it was later edited down before the serial was offered for sale (the prints we have here were recovered from overseas, hence the reason why they’re slightly edited at this point).

Poor Olivier is again ensnared in Fagin’s web of crime although it’s not too long before he finds himself free once more.  It slightly stretches credibility that Olivier would stumble across another well-to-do family who elect to take him in, although this sort of plotting (and remarkable coincidences regarding Olivier’s parentage) are par for the course with early Dickens.

The production – as with the other Dickens serials recently released by Simply – is very studio-based. Photographic blow-ups of buildings are used to give a sense of depth (these work pretty well, although there’s no doubt that on the lower-definition television sets of the 1960’s the illusion would have been even more convincing). Sound-effects are utilized to generate a sense of hustle and bustle whilst Ron Grainer’s incidental music is used sparingly at key moments.

If Bruce Prochnik begins to irritate after a while (his Olivier is rather squeaky and a little too clean-cut) then there’s substantial acting compensations to be found elsewhere. Apart from those already mentioned, Peggy Thorpe-Bates and the always entertaining William Mervyn help to enliven proceedings.

The telerecordings were restored by Peter Crocker at SVS (Crocker, well known in archive television circles for his work on the Doctor Who DVDs, is the very definition of a safe pair of hands). VidFIRE seemed to be out of the question (presumably because the telerecordings weren’t of a sufficent standard) but the restoration helps to make the serial a more pleasant viewing experience than it would have been before.

Whilst there’s numerous adaptations of Olivier Twist to choose from, this one – thanks to the fidelity it displays to Dickens’ original novel and the performances (especially Peter Vaughan’s rampaging Bill Sikes) – is certainly worth checking out.  Recommended.

Olivier Twist is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99.  It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

Melvyn Hayes, Carmel McSharry & Peter Vaughan

Gideon’s Way – The Rhyme and the Reason

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The Rhyme and the Reason opens with Bill Rose (Alan Rothwell) and Winifred Norton (Carol White) enjoying the peace and quiet of a woodland glade.  But this serene scene is soon shattered by the arrival of a motorbike gang led by Rod (Clive Colin Bowler).

Gideon’s Way would sometimes reflect contemporary youth culture, although usually in an unintentionally amusing way.  The bike gang (sneeringly dismissed as Rockers by Bill) are a good case in point.  They don’t really exude an air of menace, although this may be due to viewing the episode in 2015 rather than 1964.  Possibly back then, when motorbike gangs were a hot topic of debate, simply the sight of them would have been sufficient to discomfort a section of the audience.

It quickly becomes clear that Bill, since he’s a Mod, isn’t fond of the bikers, but Winifred feels quite different.  The air of menace and danger she senses about Rod clearly excites her (as does the sound of his engine).  There’s a look of orgasmic pleasure on her face as she drinks in the powerful sound of the bikes – and Bill’s own inadequacy is clearly demonstrated when he fires up his much more modest moped.  Not only does it take several attempts to get going – as Winifred looks on with slight contempt – it also makes a much quieter noise, which obviously isn’t to her taste.

After fifteen minutes it’s still not clear what the crime is going to be – but shortly afterwards the camera tracks over Winifred’s lifeless body and the police investigation can begin.  Bill is the chief suspect – he’d argued with her shortly before her death and his knife is discovered at the scene of the crime.  But he maintains his innocence, and Gideon is inclined to believe him.

There’s no doubt that Carol White will always be best remembered for the role of Cathy Ward in Ken Loach’s groundbreaking Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home.  The role of Winfield was less demanding but she still gives a vivid performance.  Although she only has a short amount of screen-time, White was able to imbibe the girl with a clear zest for life as well as a definite streak of burgeoning sexuality.  It’s unremarkable now, but as touched upon before, England 1964 was not really swinging – so overt displays of sexual desire were uncommon on mainstream British television.  White later pursued an acting career in America and would die aged just 48 in 1991.

Alan Rothwell has had a lengthy career with spells in several popular soap operas.  He was one of the original cast-members of Coronation Street, playing Ken Barlow’s brother David.  Several decades later he would enjoy a memorable stint on Brookside, although for a generation of children he’s probably best remembered as the host of the ITV Schools programme Picture Box.  And it’s good to know that he’s still going strong today – with recent appearances in The Musketeers, Casualty and Alan Partridge.

He’s perfect as the petulant Bill, who had both the motive and opportunity to kill his girlfriend.  But did he do it?  He maintains that he’s bound to be found guilty because of the way he looks and dresses.  “I’m a Mod, so automatically that makes me into a shiftless, no-good layabout killer.”  It’s interesting that this view is shared by some of Gideon’s team (“his type burns me up” says Keen) and the only policeman who seems convinced of the boy’s innocence is Gideon himself.

As ever, there’s an incredibly strong supporting cast.  Jo Rowbottom plays Bill’s sister Mary whilst the always dependable Duncan Lamont is Divisional Supt. Smedd, the man leading the investigation.  It does seem a little strange that an officer of Smedd’s seniority would be in charge, but then the series often showed the even more senior Gideon meddling in investigations (as he does here) so that’s fair enough.  Edward Evans (who’d previously played Bob Grove in the first British television soap, The Grove Family) has the key role of Winifred’s step-father Fred.

When Keen ventures into a club to talk to Rod, it’s a lovely time capsule of the period – complete with a happening beat-group on the stage and everybody gently twisting in time to the music.  Keen’s later confrontation with Rod outside is another delightful moment – the Rocker finds he’s no match for the wily police officer.

The episode concludes with a lengthy scene featuring Mary being pursued through the streets by the murderer.  It’s a typically well-shot sequence that uses the available locations to their best advantage – the final shot (with Battersea Power Station in the background) is especially striking.

Maybe not the most puzzling whodunnit ever, but The Rhyme and the Reason is a high-quality episode.

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