Broadcast on the 24th of December 1977, it’s fair to say that they don’t make them like this anymore. This production of A Christmas Carol is completely studio-bound and at times places characters, via the wonder of CSO, in front of illustrated backdrops. For some, this artificiality might be an issue but I feel that the non-naturalistic moments are strengths not weakness.
One of the main pluses of the production is the quality of Elaine Morgan’s adaptation. Since Dickens’ novella isn’t particularly long, Morgan was able to compress it down quite comfortably to just under an hour. Everything of note from the original story (including much of the dialogue) has been retained and it’s interesting that the likes of Ignorance and Want (often removed from other adaptations) are present and correct.
Michael Hordern, an actor who always seemed to play bemused and vague characters, makes for a very decent Scrooge – although since he lacks bite and arrogance, Hordern’s better as the story proceeds (especially when Scrooge is finally presented to us as a humble and chastised man).
John Le Mesurier only has a few minutes to make an impression as Jacob Marley, but he certainly does. His scenes with Hordern were complicated by the fact that both weren’t on set at the same time (Marley, as befits a ghost, is only ever seen as an insubstantial presence). This isn’t really a problem though, as both actors had such good timing they were able to make their scenes ‘together’ work.
The arrival of Patricia Quinn as the Ghost of Christmas Past sees Scrooge revisit his own past. The establishing shots of Scrooge’s schoolhouse are presented via a series of illustrated images, with Horden and Quinn overlaid. You can either view this as a necessity, due to the production’s low-budget, or as an inspired artistic choice. One nice moment occurs when we move into the schoolhouse and there’s another illustration – which then morphs into a real-life scene.
Almost unrecognisable, thanks to a heavy beard, is Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present (although his voice is unmistakable). Paul Copley is slightly too jolly and irritating as Fred, but this a rare production mistep. Clive Merrison, with an impressive wig, is a fine Bob Cratchit whilst Zoe Wanamaker is equally good as Belle. There’s plenty of other familiar faces, including John Salthouse, John Ringham, June Brown and Christopher Biggins whilst the brief opening narration is provided by (an uncredited) Brian Blessed.
Although there are many versions of A Christmas Carol available, this one is certainly worth your time – partly because of the quality of the cast, but also due to its fidelity to Charles Dickens’ story. Plenty of other adaptations can’t help but make various ‘improvements’ but Elaine Morgan was content to let the strength of the original tale speak for itself.
Following the death of a rich miser, his substantial fortune is willed to his estranged son, John Harmon (Paul Daneman), on one condition – that he marries, sight unseen, Miss Bella Wilfer (Zena Walker). But when Harmon is believed drowned on his journey home to England, the inheritance passes to Mr and Mrs Boffin (Richard Pearson & Marda Vanne), the loyal and faithful former employees of Harmon Snr.
The Boffins are good-hearted people, happy to share their new-found wealth with others. To this end they adopt Bella as their daughter and employ the one-legged pedler Silas Wegg (Esmond Knight) to read to them in the evenings. They also engage a mysterious young man now going under the name of John Rokesmith (who in reality is John Harmon) as their secretary.
Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ final completed novel and was originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865. The thorny topic of inheritance, a familiar Dickens theme, is a major feature of the story as is the notion that wealth can have a corrosive effect on those it touches.
Film or television adaptations of Our Mutual Friend have been fairly thin on the ground with this 1958/59 BBC adaptation by Freda Lingstrom marking the first time the novel was tackled (two further television adaptations, in 1976 and 1998, would follow).
Things begin a rather arch way, as the Wilfer family consider their lack of money. George Howe as Reginald Wifer, the nominal head of the family, has a nice henpecked comic touch but Daphne Newton, as Reginald’s domineering wife, does declaim in a somewhat stagey fashion.
The first episode also allows us an early insight into Bella’s character. She tells her father that she’s “nether reasonable nor honest. One of the consequences of being poor and of thoroughly hating and detesting it”. She then goes on to describe herself as a horrid, mercenary little wretch.
Compare and contrast her attitude with that of John Harmon. On his way back home to England via a sea journey (the onboard sequences are effectively mounted, despite the confines of the studio) he explains to a fellow traveller that his inheritance is dependent on his marrying Bella. The fact he’s returning to England suggests that he’s considering acceding to his late father’s request, but he then explains this is dependent on Bella’s character. If she turns out to be an objectionable person then he’d be happy for his old friends, the Boffins, to receive the money instead.
This might suggest that John is a wiser and more noble person than Bella, but since he has the choice of returning to his vineyard in South Africa it’s plain that he has options, whilst she doesn’t.
Both Paul Daneman and Zena Walker make strong early impressions whilst Bruce Gordon, as George Sampson, gives a nice turn as Bella’s devoted suitor. When Bella breaks the bad news that she’s planning to marry for money, he’s a picture of angst (sucking his walking stick as a child might suck his thumb!). George contributes little to the story, but can be guaranteed to pop up from time to time in order to provide a spot of comic relief.
Richard Leech casts a menacing shadow as ‘Rogue’ Riderhood, a waterman who was part of a conspiracy to murder John (another of the conspirators – Radfoot – planned to take John’s place, marry Bella and claim the inheritance). Leech gives a performance that’s somewhat on the ripe side but after a few episodes either he settles down a little or I just became more accustomed to it.
But if there’s ripeness from some, there’s subtler playing from others. Peggy Thorpe-Bates makes an immediate impression as Miss Abbey, the innkeeper of a raucous riverside tavern. Miss Abbey may be physically slight but she’s more than capable of dealing with her customers, even the intimidating Riderhood.
The first meeting between Bella and John isn’t auspicious. She later confesses that there were few people she disliked more at first sight. It might not be a surprise to learn that her feelings change as the serial wears on ….
As the episodes progress we’re introduced to all of the main characters. Richard Pearson is very agreeable as the generous and good-natured Nicodemus Boffin whilst Esmond Knight has delightful comic timing as Silas Wegg, an untrustworthy wooden-legged vagrant with a veneer of literary education. Malcom Keen (whose career began in silent movies, Hitchcock’s The Lodger amongst them) also impresses as the sympathetic Jewish moneylender Riah.
David McCallum (whom the credits inform us was appearing courtesy of the Rank Organisation) plays Eugene Wrayburn, a well-educated barrister who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam (Rachel Roberts). Eugene is a somewhat arrogant person to begin with but, as with Bella, over time he grows and develops. It can’t be a coincidence that, like John, he is nearly drowned in the river (his near-death experience seems to trigger something of a rebirth in him, just as it did with John).
Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie is complicated by Bradley Headstone (Alex Scott), who is also besotted with her (although she has little time for him). This love triangle, along with John’s continuing close observation of Bella, are major main plot-threads whilst other subplots (the machinations of ‘Rogue’ Riderhood and Silas Wegg amongst others) also simmer away nicely.
Although John Harmon might be the nominal central character, the conflict between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone for Lizzie’s hand in marriage is another highlight of the serial (both McCallum – even though he’s sporting a silly beard – and Scott provide standout performances).
Considering the limitations of this era of television, Our Mutual Friend is a polished production. If it wasn’t broadcast live, then it would have been recorded as-live (with only limited opportunities for retakes and editing). But across the twelve episodes there’s few obvious production stumbles (fluffled lines, miscued shots, etc) which is impressive.
That studio space was at a premium can be surmised by the fact that each episode restricts itself to a handful of locations. A sprinkling of filmed material helps to open the production up a little, although a number of backdrops, used in the studio to create the illusion of scale and depth, aren’t always terribly convincing. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this serial and after a while it ceases to be an issue.
There are many fine performances scattered throughout the twelve episodes. Paul Daneman had a fairly thankless task, since John Harmon/Rokesmith is a very colourless sort of fellow (often a fate suffered by Dickens’ heroes) but he still manages to make something out of the role. David McCallum has more to work with, as Eugene is a complex, dissolute character who eventually finds redemption and love. Esmond Knight is simply a treat, meaning that whenever Silas Wegg shuffles onto the screen you know that something entertaining is going to happen.
Many strong character actors – Rachel Gurney, Basil Henson and William Mervyn, amongst others – pop up from time to time. Another brief but vivid performance comes from Wilfred Brambell as Mr “Dolls”, the alcoholic father of Jenny Wren (Helena Hughes). Hughes herself is also noteworthy as the young, crippled dolls-clothes maker who has reversed roles with her father (she calls him a “bad child” and bosses him about without mercy).
The picture quality is pretty good throughout. The telerecording might show the limitations of the original 405 line transmission, but it’s still perfectly clear (some blurring on the bottom of the frame in the penultimate episode is probably the most visible fault). The soundtrack, apart from the odd crackle, is quite audible.
Freda Lingstrom’s adaptation manages to retain the flavour of Dickens’ dense novel and the generous running time (twelve half-hour episodes) is more than sufficient to ensure that all the characters are dealt with sympathetically. The serial-like nature of the original novel is kept intact, meaning that some characters may feature heavily in one episode but then not appear in the next as others take their place. It’s true that everything gets wrapped up rather too neatly at the end, but that’s a criticism that needs to be laid at Dickens’ door rather than Lingstrom’s.
Lingstrom was a fascinating character. She created the BBC Radio strand Listen with Mother in 1950 and shortly afterwards became Head of BBC Children’s Television. Watch with Mother was a logical development for television and Lingstrom, in partnership with Maria Bird, would devise two of the most enduring of all pre-school children’s programmes – Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men. This adaptation was therefore an unusual entry on her CV (and also her final television writing credit).
It’s fascinating to observe how the production battled to transcend its limited production values (most notably the lack of studio space) and whilst it may feature a few broad performances from the minor players there’s little else to find fault with here. With so little 1950’s BBC drama available, it’s very pleasing to see Our Mutual Friend released and despite the six-hours running time the story rarely seems to flag. Highly recommended.
Our Mutual Friend is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
When young Phillip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, meets a strange, reclusive lady called Miss Haversham (Maxine Audley) it opens up a new world of possibilities. Miss Haversham’s ward, the beautiful Estella (Francesca Annis), bewitches him from the first time they meet, although she is unable to return his love.
As the years pass by and the boy grows into a man, Pip learns that he has “great expectations” and will shortly come into the possession of a handsome property. Since his most heartfelt desire is to become a gentleman (only then, he believes, will he be able to win Estella’s heart) it seems like a dream come true.
So he moves to London and at first all seems well. But later he receives a shock – his anonymous benefactor turns out not to be Miss Haversham after all, but a convict named Magwitch (John Tate) ….
Originally published across 1860/61, Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’ penultimate completed novel (Our Mutual Friend and the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood would follow). A popular success at the time of its original publication (unlike Our Mutual Friend, which received a much more muted reception) Great Expectations has proved to be one of Dickens’ most enduring works.
Its popularity can be judged by the number of film and television adaptations it has inspired. Great Expectations made its debut in the cinema all the way back in 1917, whilst on television the 1959 BBC adaptation, with Dinsdale Landen as Pip, was the earliest. Sadly, the 1959 Expectations is missing one of its thirteen episodes (episode eight) so it looks unlikely to be released on DVD. Some eight years after the BBC first tackled the novel they did so again – with this 1967 ten-part adaption by Hugh Leonard.
Since so much of the impact of Great Expectations comes from the travails of Pip, strong casting of the character is essential. Luckily this production managed the feat twice – Christopher Guard played the young Pip, whilst Gary Bond took over when he reached adulthood. Guard had already appeared as David Copperfield the previous year, so was clearly well versed in the world of Dickens. Bond had racked up a varied list of credits since his screen debut in 1962 (including a notable film appearance in Zulu as Private Cole).
The first episode opens with Pip’s graveyard encounter with Magwitch. It’s a sequence that required a certain amount of skill on the part of the vision mixer, due to the way it frequently cuts from film (establishing shots of Pip) to videotape (the studio dialogue between Pip and Magwitch) and then back to film again. It’s a pity that the entire scene wasn’t shot on film, but presumably this was a matter of cost. There’s more filmwork across the serial than there was in Our Mutual Friend, but the studio scenes still dominate.
John Tate makes for a menacing Magwitch, although even in this intial scene there’s a feeling of conflict in his character. He might issue bloodcurdling threats against Pip, but he also holds him close in a way that almost seems to be tender. And when he’s later recaptured (Tate excellent again here, mudcaked and weary) he chooses not to mention that he forced Pip to fetch food for him.
Young Pip’s homelife is pretty grim. He’s abused by his sister (played by Shirley Cain) although her husband, Joe Gargery (Neil McCarthy), is a much more genial – if simple-minded – chap. McCarthy, like so many of the cast, impresses with a deftly sketched performance.
Sound effects and music are prominent right from the start. The music is dramatic (possibly over-dramatic at times) although the sound effects are more successful in creating mood and atmosphere. The constant wailing of the wind throughout the early episodes helps to create the impression that Pip lives in a cold, desolate and foreboding area. Visual signifiers – a rotting corpse hanging on a roadside gallows – reinforces this.
If Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch is a signature moment, then so too is his initial encounter with Miss Haversham. As Pip approaches her intimidating house the music swells and then abruptly cuts off as Pumblechook (Norman Scase) lays a hand on him. This could be intentional, although it seems more likely that it was a grams error.
Whilst Maxine Audley’s Miss Haversham is muted to begin with, the meeting between her and Pip still has a uncomfortable, off-kilter feeling. Not least because of Francesca Annis’ cold and abusive Estella who treats Pip with the utmost contempt.
Christopher Guard gives a very internal performance as Pip. Since he’s only a young boy (and one you can imagine has beaten into obedience from a very early age) Pip is unable to talk back to his elders and betters. So Guard has to either suffer in silence or express his true feelings somewhat obliquely.
The third episode – Apprenticeship – sees the mantle of Pip pass from Christopher Guard to Gary Bond. It’s done in a visually striking way as we see Pip, apprenticed as a blacksmith to Joe, toiling in the forge. Overlaid smoke effects and mournful music create a weary mood as the camera moves down to focus on the metal he’s hammering. And when it moves back up, the boy has become a man (thereby not only solving the problem of how to move from one actor to another, but also neatly suggesting that Pip has spent years in a form of stasis – doing the same thing, day-in and day-out).
Great Expectations boasts many fine performances across its ten episodes. Ronald Lacey casts a menacing shadow as the drunken and violent Orlick (who, like Pip, starts off as an apprentice to Joe) whilst Hannah Gordon radiates honest goodness as Biddy, a maid who helps to keep Joe’s household together after Mrs Gargery is left insensible after a violent attack from an unknown assailant.
The always dependable Peter Vaughan has a nine line in icy disdain as Mr Jaggers, the solicitor who informs Pip of his great expectations. Bernard Hepton, another fine actor, plays Jaggers’ clerk, Wemmick, a much more approachable and amusing fellow. After they’ve become better acquainted, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of his house – a wonderfully eccentric creation which features a drawbridge, waterwheel and a gun on the roof (which he fires every day at 9.00 pm). And all this in the heart of London!
Richard O’Sullivan is a pleasingly jaunty Herbert Pocket and sharply contrasts with a brooding Jon Laurimore as Bentley Dummle
Pip remains a curiously unlikable character for most of the serial. His desire to better himself and become a gentleman is generated purely by the hope it will win Estella’s approval (although given her utter indifference for him, he seems doomed to failure). Her mocking laughter at the end of the fifth episode – The Betrayal – shows that while Pip may have changed, she hasn’t. Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, where you sensed that the author approved of and supported his hero, there’s a much icier feeling here as well as a deep sense of melancholy.
The seventh episode – Pip’s Benefactor – helps to pivot the story into new and unexpected directions. The return of Magwitch is heralded by a brief burst of icy wind on the soundtrack (a nice, understated nod back to their initial graveyard meeting).
Pip’s horror that Magwitch is his benefactor is plain to see. Is it because Magwitch, although wealthy thanks to his efforts as a convict in Australia, is still somewhat uncouth? Or does it have more to do with the fact that transportation is a life sentence and so by returning to England, Magwitch faces certain death if he’s caught? Initially there’s no doubt that he’s somewhat repulsed by Magwitch but eventually he acknowledges the sacrifices the older man had made for him, which is a key moment (from this point on Pip becomes much less self-centered).
Alan Bridges peppers the ten episodes with some interesting directorial flourishes. Miss Haversham’s mausoleum of a house offers plenty of unusual camera angles whilst elsewhere (Mr Jaggers’ office, for example) the use of projected light helps to create striking shadows on the wall. Miss Haversham’s death in episode eight is another standout moment, although like Pip and Magwitch’s first meeting it’s puzzling that the scene (mostly shot on film) still has a few brief videotape inserts.
This adaptation of Great Expectations has no weak links on the performance front – Peter Vaughan, John Tate, Bernard Hepton, Richard O’Sullivan, Neil McCarthy, Francesca Annis and Maxine Audley are especially noteworthy – whilst both Pips, Christopher Guard and Gary Bond, acquit themselves well. Bond is especially impressive in the closing episodes as Pip faces one reversal of fortune after another, although they do help to deepen and strengthen his character.
The prints are of a pretty consistent quality throughout – there’s the occasional sign of dirt and damage, but given that the materials are some fifty years old that’s not too surprising. In general the picture is clear and watchable although there’s always a slight drop in quality during the film sequences (not surprising, due to the way that the film inserts would have been telecined in during the recording session).
Even with so many different adaptations of Great Expectations jostling for position, this 1967 serial – although it may lack the budget and scale of some of the others – is still worthy of attention. Tightly scripted and well acted, it’s a very solid production which still stands up well today. Warmly recommended.
Great Expectations is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Paul Dombey’s (John Carson) fondest wish is for a son to carry on his thriving business. As the story opens, his wife duly delivers a baby boy who is swiftly named Paul after his doting father. Although Mrs Dombey dies shortly afterwards, this seems to have a negligible impact on Dombey as his son quickly becomes the centre of his life (with the result that his daughter Florence is pushed even more into the background).
When young Paul dies at the age of six, Dombey Snr is devastated. Florence attempts to comfort him but he continues to rebuff her, which eventually leads to a seemingly irrevocable split between father and daughter ….
Originally published in nineteen monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848, Dombey & Son, despite being regarded by many as one of Dickens’ best works, has generated surprisingly few film or television adaptations. In the cinema, a 1917 British silent film and a very loose 1931 adaptation (which was renamed Rich Man’s Folly and saw the action transferred to the United States) are the only examples. On television there have been just two English-language versions – this one and a later BBC Classic Serial adaptation in 1983.
The first episode quickly defines Dombey’s character. He’s a proud, dignified and extremely humourless man who treats his young daughter, Florence (played to begin with by Vicky Williams and later by Kara Wilson), with at best indifference and at worst contempt. John Carson, an actor who was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, impresses right from the start. Unbending as Dombey might be, Carson doesn’t play him as simply a monster, instead he offers a much more nuanced performance.
Although Dombey is something of a dull fellow, as compensation there’s a number of sparkling comic performances sprinkled throughout the thirteen episodes. Two sitcom favourites – Hilda Braid and Pat Coombs – form a wonderful double-act as Louisa Chick and Lucretia Tox. Louisa (Braid) is Dombey’s sister, a woman who shares her brother’s low opinion of Florence whilst Lucretia (Coombs) is her friend, a somewhat simpleminded person who simpers delightfully over Dombey and harbours a hopeless secret desire to become the next Mrs Dombey.
William Moore, another actor probably best known for his sitcom work (for example, the long-suffering Mr Lumsden in Sorry!) is padded up as the hearty seadog Captain Cuttle. Complete with a hook for a hand, Moore gives an unsubtle, but highly entertaining performance.
The first meeting between Dombey and Cuttle is an absolute gem. Dombey, taking afternoon refreshment with Paul and Florence in a Brighton tearoom (young Paul has been sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will restore his failing health), is appalled when the colourful Captain Cuttle sidles over to his table. Cuttle is introduced to Domby by Walter Gay (Derek Seaton), one of Dombey’s clerks. The best moment of all is when Walter first mentions Cuttle’s name and the Captain raises his arm (the one with the hook, naturally) in response. Lovely!
Vicky Williams, as young Florence, doesn’t have a great deal of screentime (Kara Wilson would take over the role by the middle of the second episode) but she still makes an impression. The scenes where she’s lost in the city after being robbed of her clothes by an old crone, Mrs Brown (Fay Compton), are heartbreaking. Equally affecting is Ronald Pickering as young Paul. When Paul asks Dombey (in response to being told that money can buy anything) whether it can buy good health, his father is temporarily speechless.
When Dombey decides to send his young clerk, Walter, to the West Indies, it’s a story-beat which intrigues on several levels. Firstly, it’s another example of the way that Dombey cares little for other people (apart, of course, from his son) since it never seems to cross his mind to canvas Walter’s opinion first. Secondly, since Walter has shown interest in Florence, dispatching him abroad serves to sever their tentative relationship. Considering that he seems to care little for his daughters happiness, this appears to be an act of deliberate cruelty.
The fourth episode tugs at the heartstrings as young Paul begins to fade. His death is an understated moment – the camera moves away from his bed to focus on the window as the sound level reduces. The next scene, as Dombey stands by his son’s grave, is a sharp and jolting cut, but it works well.
Christopher Sandford as Mr Toots helps to lighten the mood following Paul’s funeral. Mr Toots, a former schoolfriend of Paul, is a kind-hearted, vague and twitchy young man who loves Florence dearly (but although she always treats him kindly it’s plain that she doesn’t feel the same way). But the ever-optimistic Mr Toots is never downhearted and can always be guaranteed to come bouncing back. Sandford provides a delightful comic performance in a serial which has an abundance of them.
Towards the end of this episode there’s the first hint that Dombey isn’t quite as unbending as he might appear. He decides not to send Walter to the West Indies after all, but it’s too late – his ship has already sailed, much to Florence’s anguish (which only increases when the vessel is feared to have been lost at sea). Kara Wilson, as befits the character she plays, may be somewhat placed in the background but she still essays a subtle performance as a young woman constantly rebuffed by a father who finds it impossible to communicate with her on anything but the most rudimentary level.
Clive Swift is yet another quality addition to the cast. He plays the bluff and hearty Major Bagstock, who seems to be Dombey’s only friend. The restrained Dombey and the ebullient Bagstock would seem to have little in common, but it’s their very differences which help to generate an entertaining spark between them.
The middle part of the serial sees Dombey remarry. He selects Edith Granger (Sally Home) who seems in every way to be an ideal choice – as she’s a skilled artist and musician as well as being a refined conversationalist. Nestling amongst some deliciously broad comic performances, Home offers a sharp contrast as the second Mrs Dombey.
Although she accepts Dombey’s proposal, it’s plain that – on her side at least – it’s not a love match. Manipulated by her mother from an early age (in order to ensnare a rich husband) Edith is a weary and embittered figure. But the one bright spark in her new life is her relationship with Florence.
Whilst some children might regard a new step-mother with mistrust, Florence is plainly overjoyed – partly because she hopes it will enable her father to find new happiness but also because there’s no doubt that her lonely existence would be enriched by a mothers love. The way that Florence instantly refers to Edith as Mama is touching (Kara Wilson is excellent again here).
But any happiness that Dombey might have hoped for is short-lived, as Edith runs away with the slimy and manipulative Caker (Gary Raymond). Dombey, with the assistance of Alice Brown (also played by Sally Home) and her mother (who coincidently robbed the young Florence earlier in the serial) vows to track them down.
Gary Raymond seems to delight in playing the boo-hiss villain who, as tradition demands, meets a sticky end. And although Home plays both roles well, it probably would have been better had another actress played Alice (a woman who had a special cause to dislike Caker). This is mainly because it’s more than a little odd that no-one who ever meets Alice comments on her remarkably strong resemblance to Edith ….
Edith’s departure finally severs the already fraying relationship between Dombey and Florence. Whilst a distraught Florence is taken under Captain Cuttle’s wing (William Moore once again marvellous value at this point in the serial) Dombey faces severe business traumas due to Caker’s rash profiteering. And as Dombey’s own health takes a turn for the worse, a now happily-married Florence attempts one final reconciliation. Will the patrician Dombey deign to acknowledge his daughter and her children?
Runnng for thirteen 25 minute episodes, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation manages to skillfully fillet Dickens’ novel and thereby retain everything of interest. A fine rogues gallery of comic performers – headed by the peerless William Moore as Captain Cuttle – helps to keep things ticking along nicely although the family drama between Dombey and Florence is never overshadowed. In general, performances across the serial are very strong although Douglas Mann as young Rob Toodle does overact somewhat (luckily his part isn’t a particularly large one).
Director Joan Craft had already helmed a number of Charles Dickens adaptations, although the survival rate of her serials is sadly quite low. Both The Old Curiosity Shop (featuring Patrick Troughton as Quilp – his favourite role) and Martin Chuzzlewit are completely missing although odd episodes from A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield do exist. More encouragingly, her 1968 version of Nicholas Nickleby remains in the archives, so hopefully a release from Simply might occur in the future.
Her directorial style isn’t dramatic or showy (there’s few of the flourishes that can be seen in Alan Bridges’ Great Expectations) but she still manages to ensure that the story unfolds at a decent pace. The production style is as you’d expect from a programme of this era – mostly studio sequences recorded on videotape, with occassional brief film inserts.
The episodes are a mixture of telerecordings and original videotape masters. The episodes which still exist on videotape are obviously the best quality ones. although since the telerecordings are also of a very high standard the jump between the different formats isn’t as great as it could have been. Overall, the picture quality (considering the unrestored nature of the source materials) is very good. The sound is generally clear although some of the telerecorded episodes (episode eleven especially) are somewhat crackly in places.
Thanks to the first-class cast who rarely put a foot wrong, Dombey & Son is another impressive Dickens adaptation. Highly recommended.
Dombey & Son is released by Simply Media on the 3rd of July 2017. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (Colin Jeavons and Elizabeth Shepherd) are two young wards of court, enmeshed in a seemingly unending court case – that of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. John Jarndyce (Andrew Cruickshank) also has an interest in it and despite being on the opposing side to Richard and Ada is happy to take custody of them both.
So Richard and Ada, along with Ada’s companion Esther Summerson (Diana Fairfax), take up their residence at Jarndyce’s country home, Bleak House. Others, such as the nearby Lady Dedlock (Iris Russell), are also connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but that isn’t the reason why the arrival of Richard, Ada and Esther impacts so dramatically on her hitherto quiet life ….
Originally published between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House is a typically sprawling work by Dickens, notable for the way it switches between first and third person narration.
It has been tackled three times for television, with two further adaptations (in 1985 and 2005) following this one. Both of the later adaptations are, in their different ways, of interest. The 1985 Bleak House was one of the earliest BBC Dickens productions to be made entirely on film – this glossy production style would quickly become a standard production model, signalling the death knell for the old-style videotaped Classic Serial productions which until then had been a staple of the schedules for decades.
When Bleak House next hit the screens, via Andrew Davies’ adaptation in 2005, it was hailed as innovative – due to its half-hour twice-weekly scheduling which, according to the critics, gave it a soap-like feel as well as simulating the partwork feel of Dickens’ originals. Presumably these critics must have been unaware that the running time for the Classic Serials, broadcast between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, also tended to be half an hour …
It’s unfortunate that, despite a lengthy career, Elizabeth Shepherd seems fated to be remembered for the part that got away – that of Emma Peel in The Avengers. Despite having already filmed some material for her first episode, for whatever reason it was quickly decided to dispense with her services and Diana Rigg was hastily drafted in. Although Ada is the least developed of the main roles, Shepherd still acquits herself well. Ada’s a sweet, uncomplicated girl, with none of the subconscious dark secrets that trouble Esther.
At this point in his career, aged thirty, Colin Jeavons was no stranger to either television or Charles Dickens. He’d played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (also 1959) and the same year had also appeared as Henry V in The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff. Jeavons made a career out of playing slightly off-key characters and although Richard seems at first to be quite level-headed, there’s still a faint air of instability about him – something which Jeavons is well able to tease out as the serial progresses. Richard is a young man with a bright future, but it’s precisely what that future will be which proves to be the problem.
Diana Fairfax was also no stranger to classic serials. Prior to Bleak House she’d appeared in The Diary of Samuel Pepys whilst the next year, 1960, would see her perform in both Emma and Kipps. Esther is the moral centre of the story, although it takes some time for her importance to become obvious (to begin with, she appears to be little more than Ada’s loyal companion).
Andrew Cruickshank might have been a few years away from his defining role – that of the curmudgeonly, but kindly Dr Cameron in Dr Finlay’s Casebook – but he’d been a familiar face on both the big and small screen since the late 1930’s. Cruickshank is excellent as John Jarndyce – a lonely man who delights that his house has been brought back to life by the influx of three young people.
As is usual, Dickens created a rogues gallery of supporting players – all of whom are gifts for any decent actor. Timothy Bateson appeals as Mr Guppy, a young solicitor with an unrequited love for Esther. This is obvious from their first meeting when he appreciates her fresh-faced country look (“no offence”). Bateson’s comic timing is given full reign here.
It’s always a pleasure to see Michael Aldridge (playing Mr George) whilst another very dependable character actor, Jerome Willis, also enlivens proceedings as Allan Woodcourt. Nora Nicholson offers us a vivid portrait as Miss Flyte – an elderly woman now more than a little deranged from her own endless court case (if Richard and Ada pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, will they end up like her?)
He may not be on screen for too long, but Wilfred Brambell sketches an appealing cameo as the grasping Krook. Brambell had also made a memorable appearance in the previous BBC Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, and wasn’t the only actor to have appeared in both serials. Richard Pearson and William Mervyn also have that honour, with Pearson – here playing the dogged Inspector Bucket – also catching the eye.
Tulkinghorn, the oppressive lawyer who digs into Lady Deadlock’s long-buried secret is another key character. John Phillips doesn’t have Peter Vaughan’s menacing screen presence (Vaughan played Tulkinghorn in the 1985 adaptation) instead he essays a sense of remorseless blankness, which works just as well.
As might be expected, the serial is pretty much studio bound with the occasional brief film insert. The telerecordings are slightly muddy, but no worse than other examples from the same period. And while the prints may exhibit occasional damage there’s nothing too dramatic – meaning that the serial is more than watchable.
Lacking the visual sweep of the later adaptations, this version of Bleak House has to stand or fall on the quality of its actors. Luckily, there’s very little to complain about here. There are some fine central performances – Fairfax, Cruickshank and Jeavons especially – whilst, as touched upon earlier, there’s strength in depth from the supporting players with Timothy Bateson standing out.
Another strong early BBC Dickens serial, Bleak House comes warmly recommended.
Bleak House is released by Simply Media today. RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
Barnaby Rudge was the first of Charles Dickens’ two historical novels (the other being The Tale of Two Cities). Set during the late eighteenth century, it climaxed at the Gordon Riots of 1780. Largely forgotten today, the Gordon Riots were an anti-Catholic protest which quickly spiralled out of control. A group of between 40,000 and 60,000 protestors nursing various grievances – including the increasing Catholic influence sweeping the country, high taxes, overcrowded cities and repressive laws – ran amok on the streets of London. The riots raged on for several days until the army were eventually able to brutally restore order. But by this point some 285 people had been shot dead with several hundred more wounded.
If the Gordon Riots are forgotten today, then a similar fate has befallen Barnaby Rudge. Easily Dickens’ most obscure novel, this is evidenced by the fact that this 1960 serial remains the only television adaptation. Published between February and November 1841, it came quite early in his career – which explains why it feels a little episodic and unfocused at times.
Barnaby Rudge himself (played by John Wood) is a simple-minded chap, buffeted along by events rather than directly influencing them. It’s a difficult part to play – there’s no malice in Barnaby – but Wood is generally pretty effective as the easily-manipulated innocent. But whilst he may be the title character he’s not the central one – Barnaby drifts in and out of the narrative, appearing and disappearing as required.
Episode one opens with a stranger (played by Nigel Arkwright) asking the local innkeeper about the nearby grand house owned by Geoffrey Haredale (Peter Williams). It’s a dark and stormy night outside – achieved via sound effects and camera trickery (simple but effective).
Arthur Brough, later best known as Mr Grainger in Are You Being Served?, here plays John Willet, the innkeeper. Puffing on a long pipe he helps to tease out a strange story which much will later become significant. The mysterious murders twenty two years ago of Geoffrey’s brother, Reuben, and Reuben’s loyal servant Rudge (Barnaby’s father) are mysteries which are still debated by the locals to this day.
Arkwright doesn’t offer a subtle performance, but it’s a menacing one as he brings out the simmering violence which powers his character. Joan Hickson, as Mrs Varden, also isn’t holding back, but this broad playing suits the shrewish character she plays.
The remainder of the Varden household are also deftly sketched out. Head of the household, Gabriel (Newton Blick), is an affable sort who’s often to be found allied with his attractive young daughter Dolly (Jennifer Daniel) against their wife and mother.
Rellgious dogma will later become the central theme of the story, although to begin with it’s teased out in a casual manner – Mrs Varden’s constant quoting from the bible or the way that John Chester (Raymond Huntley) regards Emma Haredale (Eira Heath) as an unsuitable wife for his son due to her religion – but as the serial progresses the conflict between Catholics and Protestants will become more marked. Huntley, playing to type as the austere and flinty Chester, offers a standout performance. Some others may essay broad, comic performances during the serial, but Huntley is agreeably more naturalistic.
Gabriel Varden, a locksmith by trade, has an apprentice, Simon Tappertit (Timothy Bateson), who has set his cap at Dolly (although she regards him with casual indifference). As in Bleak House, Bateson delivers a lovely comic performance, although there’s a harder edge to this character. Like many others, he possesses a simmering discontent (although with him it’s not relgious concerns, instead his ire is directed towards those he regards as his wealthy oppressors).
As the first half of the serial progresses, various plotlines are developed. Simon’s links with a group of dissident apprentices who meet in secret and dream of violent disobedience against their oppressive masters, the curious link between Barnaby’s mother and the mysterious stranger, Joe Willit’s (Alan Haywood) longing for the flitish Dolly and the forbidden love between Edward Chester (Bernard Brown) and Emma Haredale are all teased out.
Mid way through the serial, several major new characters – such as anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon (Anthony Sharp) – are introduced as we proceed on the path to the Gordon Riots. Gordon is a fanatic, whose cry of “No Popery” quickly becomes a popular sentiment amongst the masses.
Geoffrey Haredale, a staunch Catholic, spells out what precisely what these two simple words could mean. “I have, tonight, seen an ignorant and unhappy people roused. They know nothing of what the repeal of the act means, but ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to right all their wrongs. ‘No Popery’ is the cry that is going to give them food, shelter, clothes, work and drink”.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it …..
The production design is very sound. Real horses (never easy to control in a studio) occasionally appear and the outside of Geoffrey Haredale’s house is depicted via a painted backdrop. This is a very theatrical way of generating a sense of depth and scale, but it works. More backdrops are in evidence when the action moves to the streets of London, whilst the later episodes are also opened out thanks to a judicious use of filmed inserts. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the riots was far beyond the means of the production, but director Morris Barry marshalled his resources well. Even with the limited number of extras at his disposal, Barry was effectively able to show the ugliness of mob violence.
It’s fair to say that some parts of the story work better than others. Edward and Emma’s romance never really sparks into life – not really the fault of the actors though, it’s simply that the two characters are never sharply defined. Barbara Hicks, as the Varden’s maid Miggs, gives a performance that can best be described as “broad”. It’s a typically comic Dickens character, but Hicks’ shrieking does become wearying after a while.
But on the credit side there are many fine performances, most notably that of Raymond Huntley. His timing is spot-on (plus his brief interactions with Timothy Bateson and Joan Hickson are rather delightful).
The introduction of Lord George Gordon is the point at which the story rapidly changes direction. This is a little jarring, but the influx of new characters does help to give the serial a fresh impetus. One notable new arrival is Esmond Knight (previously he had memorably played Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend) . Here he appears as Dennis the Hangman, one of a number of individuals who encapsulate the baser end of society.
Like other surviving drama of this era, the source materials are telerecordings taken from the original 405 line broadcasts. The recordings may exhibit the occasional spot of damage or dirt, but overall the picture quality is more than watchable (although the concluding episode is notably poorer than the others).
Although a handful of performances are less than effective and the story feels somewhat disjointed (it’s essentially two seperate tales bolted together) Barnaby Rudge is still a serial of considerable interest. The theme of the later episodes feels eerily topical, offering a sharp change of pace from the countryside intrigues of the first half. It’s another well-crafted Classic Serial which, despite its length, never outstays its welcome. Well worth adding to your collection.
Barnaby Rudge is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.
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).
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 possible. 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.
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 sufficient 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.
John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), the uncle of young Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox), is a choirmaster, music teacher and opium addict who is secretly in love with Rosa Budd (Tamzin Merchant). But she’s engaged to be married to Edwin (both are currently under age, but plan to wed shortly). Rosa is clearly a desirable woman since she has also caught the attention of Neville Landless (Sacha Derwin), who – along with his sister Helen (Amber Rose Revah) – both hail from Ceylon.
Edwin and Neville take an instant dislike to each other and therefore when Edwin mysteriously disappears he’s an obvious suspect. As is Edwin’s Uncle Jasper …..
Due to its unfinished nature (Dickens died, aged 58, before completing it), The Mystery of Edwin Drood has always been an object of curiosity and, yes, mystery. Had Dickens’ lived, all the evidence suggests that John Jasper would have been unmasked as the murderer (Dickens’ son as well as Luke Fildes, who illustrated the story, were both told this by Dickens himself). But exactly how Dickens would have resolved matters is unknown and since at his death only six of the planned twelve instalments had been completed, the story still had some way to run.
This has inspired something of a cottage industry over the last century or so, as books, plays, films and previous television adaptations have all sought to bring events to a satisfying conclusion. The most recent is this one – which aired on BBC2 in 2012 – and featured a new solution from adapter Gwyneth Hughes.
Right from the opening minutes, we are privy to the tortured, opium-soaked dreams of John Jasper. A nightmarish sequence sees him murder Edwin in church whilst an impassive Rosa looks on. The style of this sequence is bright and warm (contrasting to the darker and muddier tone of the real world) so as the colours begin to fade, Jasper realises that he’s returning to reality.
And it’s a reality that’s increasingly causing him despair. He may be one of the most respected men about town, but this gives him very little joy. A possible reason for this – his desire for Rosa – is teased out as the first episode progresses. Since he’s a very internalised character, he’s not able to express his feelings openly, but various visual clues – for example, when Jasper plays the piano and Rosa sings, the camera closes in on her mouth – help to reinforce these suspicions (as do the comments of others).
As for the eponymous Edwin Drood, he’s initially presented as something of a brash arrogant youngster, although quieter moments later help to deepen his character. The question of whether Edwin and Rosa really are in love or are simply content to go along with their forthcoming arranged marriage is a key part of the narrative which is explored in the opening episode. She regards the clucking of her schoolfriends with disdain (they’re overcome with the romance of it all, she’s not) whilst the first meeting we see between Edwin and Rosa is something of an icy affair – she tells him that they can’t kiss, because she’s sucking a sweet.
When the kind-hearted Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear) throws a small party to welcome the Landless’ to polite society, it only serves as another example of Edwin’s less attractive traits. He thinks nothing of insulting Rosa in front of the others – a moment of arrogance which infuriates the previously monosyllabic and placid Neville Landless.
As is typical with a Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood offers some prime scene-stealing smaller roles (so often these are the highlights of any production). Ron Cook is a delightful Durdles, a stonemason with intimate knowledge of Cloisterham Cathedral, Ian McNeice sports an impressive pair of mutton-chop whiskers as Major Sapsea whilst Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie are further welcome additions to the cast.
But The Mystery of Edwin Drood stands or falls on the performance of John Jasper. Luckily, Matthew Rhys is excellent – giving a gloriously off-kilter performance. Freddie Fox doesn’t have a great deal of screentime, but it’s long enough to highlight all the contradictions inherent in Edwin’s character – at heart, it seems that he’s a decent man who would be a loving husband to Rosa. But it seems fated not to be ….
Tamzin Merchant may be the least developed of the three – Rosa tends to be objectified by both Edwina and Jasper and therefore rarely emerges as a character in her own right – but Merchant comes into her own in the second episode. When Jasper finally admits to Rosa his depths of feeling for her, the wave of revulsion she feels is palpable.
Gwyneth Hughes’ solution to the mystery is quite ingenious (the viewer would be advised to consider the problem of the unreliable narrator). With a running time of only two 60 minute episodes, this is more of a sprint Dickens than a marathon one but The Mystery of Edwin Drood – even with the substantial section created by Hughes – is a compelling drama.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is released by Second Sight on the 6th of November 2017. RRP £15.99.