‘Dickensian’ deserved a lot more than one series.
Admittedly, this reviewer wasn’t entirely convinced by the concept of the show prior to airing. Although certainly an intriguing premise, the idea of putting together the characters of Dickens’ myriad novels into one singular setting had, it seemed to me, the potential to be very, very silly. Possibly even cartoonish. Happily, this vision was executed so brilliantly that the Red Planet Pictures series became one of the most absorbing and engaging TV drams of recent times, a programme that, above anything else, was sheer fun.
‘Dickensian’ is essentially a Victorian ‘EastEnders’. Not surprising, given it was the brainchild of former scriptwriter for that show Tony Jordan, who also wrote the majority of episodes. With the characters almost all concentrated on the same wintry street, complete with Queen Vic stand-in The Three Cripples on the corner, and with cliffhanger endings and a meticulously plotted whodunit driving the overarching story, it’s unashamedly soap by way of Charles Dickens. And it works wonderfully.
Brought in to investigate the murder of ruthless moneylender Jacob Marley, Inspector Bucket, on whose success will be judged the merits and benefits of the new ‘Detective’, keeps a sharp eye on the various residents of Marley’s neighbourhood, from the loveable but struggling Cratchits, to the well-to-do but under-pressure Barbarys, to Marley’s business partner Ebenezer Scrooge and Bucket’s long-time nemesis Fagin. Woven amongst this mystery is the financial plight of the Barbarys, and daughter Honoria’s dilemma between the interested, rich Sir Leicester Dedlock and true love Captain Hawdon, as well as the social-climbing aspirations of the Bumbles, and local heiress Amelia Havisham’s manipulation by jealous brother Arthur and his ruthlessly deceitful partner Meriwether Compeyson.
Jordan’s series structure is excellent (if rather abused by BBC scheduling decisions during its run), its 20 half-hour episodes allowing a wealth of time to get to know and care about the huge cast of characters, regardless of whether the viewer has ever read a page of Dickens (this reviewer was more familiar with some books than others), and building rewardingly to the revelation of the killer in episode 17, before concentrating on the climax of Compeyson’s more insidious plot for its finale. Along the way, the show, understandably enough for a first (and sadly, as it turned out, only) run, focuses almost exclusively on the Dickens’ best-known work, namely ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’, with the success of the BBC’s ‘Bleak House’ adaptation in 2005 almost certainly a factor in the heavy concentration on that story too. It’s regrettable that, as a consequence of the series’ cancellation, we don’t get to see what Jordan might have done with some of Dickens’ more obscure works, the promising inclusion of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in episode 1, only to disappointingly disappear from the narrative afterwards proving to be one of the few jarring elements of the show’s storytelling. It makes that initial episode feel, in retrospect, almost like an American pilot in its experimentalism, and not entirely for the better.
But if Little Nell and Grandfather prove to be, pardon the pun, curious inclusions this early on, the storytelling of the show from the second instalment onwards is next to flawless. The Marley investigation is genuinely one of the better whodunits ever committed to screen, the ten hours of television allowing it proper room to breathe as a mystery, more than a little indebted to the one-murder-per-series structure of long-form imports like ‘The Killing’. The Havisham deception also benefits enormously from the length of time dedicated to it, allowing us to become so utterly invested in that story that, by the time the finale come around, we are all but screaming at the television for Amelia to see through Compeyson, and for the charlatan to receive his comeuppance. The Bumbles, meanwhile, provide a rich thread of comic relief throughout, their own story culminating in a goosebumps-inspiring moments in episode 19 as the show interprets a major, classic moment from Dickens’ source work, while secondary scribe Sarah Phelps contributes one of the best half hours of television this reviewer has ever watched in episode 16, as Honoria Barbary’s plight comes to a head, bringing to mind, with its one-off focus on a single storyline, the best ‘EastEnders’ night-time two-handers.
The cast of Dickensian are, to a man, magnificent. Peter Firth manages to create such an odious Jacob Marley, well-deserving of the classic punishment we see him enduring in ‘A Christmas Carol’, in the course of a single episode that we fully believe any number of characters would want him dead. Ned Dennehy’s Scrooge, while not the sleaze his late business partner was, is still almost as fierce in his own quieter way, exhibiting the same menace towards Bob Cratchit that we know from the original tale, and displaying no mercy to Edward Barbary when he pleads for leniency. It’s a strange experience to see a version of Scrooge who remains pitiless and cruel throughout, the series not taking us anywhere near as far as the point of his redemption. It feels almost wrong somehow, and in a way makes this version of the character all the more chilling for the sense of something missing- the uplifting core and message of Dickens’ story still very far away for the character here.
Anton Lesser is superb as Fagin, a masterclass in acting amongst a universally great cast. Compassionate and fatherly towards Nancy, understatedly sinister in his threats to would-be-usurper Bill Sikes, sardonic and almost bored in his old rivalry with Bucket, Lesser clearly relishes the part, creating, in the process, perhaps the definitive version of the character. If there’s another small grievance this reviewer has with the series, it’s the lack of any follow-up to one intriguing, but sadly single scene between Fagin and Scrooge, Dennehy and Lesser both so dangerous in the parts in their respective ways that the absence of any further sparks flying between them feels like a criminally missed opportunity. Bethany Muir as Nancy, meanwhile, is a refreshingly earnest, kind-hearted presence in the drama, her hope and optimism, in spite of her circumstances, endearing us to her (culminating in an enchanting musical number at the conclusion of episode 20), and lending a tragic poignancy to our knowledge of her future fate, while Mark Stanley manages the feat of making Sikes, in this particular incarnation, a guiltily likeable romantic lead, sweeping Nancy off her feet in a way that makes us believe she could fall for the character before realising what a brute he’ll eventually reveal himself to be.
At the driving heart of the story is the magnificent Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket. Kind but firm in his dealings with the residents, his rivalry with Fagin and double act with Omid Djalili’s Mr Venus amuses, his genuine dilemma throughout the course of episode 18 after discovering the identity of the killer touches, and his at-times obsessive determination to solve the case at all costs slightly unnerves. With his trademark top hat and cane, the first silhouette glimpsed amidst the shadows of the characters in the excellently-designed opening credits, he’s this reviewer’s favourite fictional detective since Poirot, and, with more series and better scheduling in which to stamp his mark, would surely have become just as iconic.
Lending more light to the drama is the likeable Robert Wilfort as Bob Cratchit, and Jennifer Hennessy as wife Emily, their portrayal of a genuinely in-love couple who care deeply about each other and their children proving a heartening sight, lending the show real moments of happiness amidst some of the gloom. Wilfort allows us to see just enough of his character’s hurt at Scrooge’s oppression to seem realistically human, while still allowing us to believe that he could stoically suffer his employer’s ill-treatment without open complaint. And late in the series, Hennessy gets the best part of a whole episode in which to shine as a mother and wife who would do anything to protect her family, leaving us rooting for her entirely as she faces a huge question mark over her fate. Also providing warmth is Imogen Faires in her few appearances as Nell, the talented young actress managing to leave an impression despite very limited screen time- it really is a shame she doesn’t get more to do. Particularly frustrating is the lack of resolution to a teenage romance subplot with Brenock O’Connor’s Peter Cratchit.
These points of light are needed, for the villains of ‘Dickensian’, though brilliantly fleshed out and well-rounded, are truly despicable. Tom Weston-Jones, in Meriwether Compeyson, manages to craft a character so infuriatingly wicked, for all his outward attractiveness, that we are ready to hurl something at the screen by episode 20, desperate for Amelia to wake up to her situation. His silver-tongued charm and seeming ability to get away with each and every misdeed, thwarting the efforts of those who try to oppose him at every turn, are frighteningly believable, his single-minded purpose to con Amelia and break her heart for little more than sport proving, in its own way, to be the greater villainy of the series, rather than the open bitterness of Scrooge or the mischief of Fagin. The fact that the viewer comes to despise Compeyson’s character so thoroughly is testament to Weston-Jones’ performance- a truly nasty piece of work from beginning to end.
Alexandra Moen, meanwhile, portrays possibly the most nuanced character of the series. Although, in some respects, every bit as evil as Compeyson, Moen manages to make us empathise with envious Barbary sister Frances, despite an icy exterior that proves next to impossible for her family to melt. This climaxes most spectacularly in the Phelps-scripted episode 16, which sees Moen’s performance shift the viewer’s feelings from hatred to sympathy and then back again in a roller-coaster of a half hour. It’s wonderful to be made to feel so many different emotions about a character in such a short space of time, and one can only assume Moen found the part to be among the most stimulating of her career- it’s arguably the best in the whole series, in an extremely competitive field.
On the side of the angels, meanwhile (at least for now), Tuppence Middleton puts in a magnificently nuanced performance of her own as Amelia Havisham, her earnest, kind-hearted heiress a striking contrast to the amoral seductress she portrays in the BBC’s recent ‘War and Peace’, managing to convey a strong, capable, independently-minded woman while successfully convincing us (just about) that even someone as intelligent as her could be taken in by Compeyson. It helps that she actually does get the measure of him at one point before the finale, and almost sees him off, before he manages to reel her back in by pulling out all the stops to bring the wool back down over her eyes. It’s, as suggested before, deeply frustrating, but undoubtedly engages the viewer all the more with the drama, and we can understand her weakest link lying with her brother. Because Joseph Quinn’s portrayal of Arthur is a beautifully heartbreaking one, a tortured soul throughout the whole series, ever-torn over his own plot to cheat his sister of her wealth, and enabling us to maintain some sympathy with the character even as we loathe his partner in crime. Compeyson’s shameless manipulation of his fears over the exposure of his sexuality, ruthlessly bringing him back into the fold every time he wavers, keeps Arthur feeling more like a tragic figure than an outright crook. Despite the original source of the series subject matter, his arc feels almost Shakespearean.
One of Dickens’ more fascinating, ambiguous characters, both in the original novel and in the various television adaptations, has always been shrewd lawyer Jaggers, and here John Heffernan makes the character almost as scary as the villains, albeit always towards those who deserve his ire, conveying, on the other hand, an almost paternal set of feelings towards Amelia. Fierce in her own way, though tempered by a wealth of comical scenes, is Caroline Quentin’s brilliantly fun Mrs Bumble, ever keen to move up in the world, but more often than not undone by her own folly. Richard Ridings is possibly the best hen-pecked husband ever put on screen, eternally sexually frustrated, always kept on just enough of a leash in order to do his wife’s bidding. A rare moment of fury towards her late in the series (‘I meant on the napery, madam!’) is all the more rewarding for its unexpectedness, although he’s soon back in line.
Rounding off the main cast, meanwhile, are Sophie Rundle and Ben Starr as star-crossed lovers Honoria Barbary and Captain James Hawdon, their passion and love for one another excitingly believable yet risky in this buttoned-up era. Again, in episode 16, Rundle gives her performance of the series opposite Moen’s Frances, leaving us aching for her by the end of the half hour. Elsewhere, however, it would have been nice to have Hawdon involved once Compeyson is exposed, given his deception of the captain too in order to win over the ladies- it would have been an interesting extra dynamic to see. And on the third side of the Hawdon/Honoria/Sir Leicester love triangle, Richard Cordery brings a quality somewhere between amiable and creepy, clearly genuinely besotted by Honoria, and yet pushing that interest just a little too strongly, almost to the point of lecherous. It’s a somewhat disquieting portrayal at times, something in it just that little bit distasteful, that little bit closer to inappropriate lust than love.
Finally, Pauline Collins enjoys herself thoroughly as gin-loving Mrs Gamp, ever on the periphery of the other characters’ stories, but always finding herself at the heart of the gossip, securing a drink at other’s expense on the flimsiest of pretexts. She’s a true soap character for the Victorian world, and one of the highlights of the whole show.
With a cast this talented, and with such extraordinary writers and storytellers as Jordan and Phelps working on it, the cancellation of ‘Dickensian’ really is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the more regrettable decisions in television drama in recent times. Although, by series’ end, the show lines up well enough with the traditional Dickens novels, with ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ in particular nicely ready to kick off, it would have been great to see the series tackle the familiar events of those novels with its own interpretation, as well as explore some of the author’s other works and characters in the same rich detail as his most famous ones receive here. But it will certainly remain as a fantastic standalone series, with a well-plotted and executed series of story threads binding it together, simultaneously wrapping up neatly by the final episode, and yet leaving the viewer wanting much more, by virtue of its sheer quality and class.
A refreshingly structured series with a superb cast and some award-worthy writing (episode 16), regrettably ill-treated in the end by scheduling and the powers that be.