This is the first of two posts for The Perfumed Dandy – a word on Bleak House, by George Kaplan

gillian anderson bleak house

Hello Fearless Readers, it’s time once again for a brief post from Beguiling Hollywood’s Perfidious Albion (that’s “England” for the sane among you!) Correspondent while Ms Lester recovers from viral nastiness. Sorry, I’ll try to make this as painless as possible!

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As I mentioned in Wednesday’s Great Expectations post, Cinema has found rich pickings in the works of Charles Dickens but there’s another medium that has also repeatedly ransacked his bookshelves… Yes, Television, a medium that has been characterized in past decades as a “vast wasteland” and a “bottomless pit of…” (you can fill in the blank for yourself!) has been responsible for many fine and some less than fine adaptations of Dickens’s artistic catalogue, most notably and unsurprisingly from his homeland, Britain and the BBC. Everything from myriad versions of Great Expectations (1959, 1967, 1981, 1991 – for ITV, 1999 etc.) to Our Mutual Friend (most notably, perhaps, in 1998) and even Martin Chuzzlewit (1994) has graced the small screen with more than a few great performances and inspired interpretations between them.

However, by the 2000s television was searching for new ways to make Dickens “relevant” (I find myself making a sign to ward off evil spirits when I hear that word used in that context but, hey, that’s just me!) and vibrant for a modern audience. Out of this came the BBC’s inventive 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, one of Dickens’s most complex works. Instead of a traditional series of hour-long episodes this version was translated into fifteen half-hour episodes scripted by adapter extraordinaire Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Tipping the Velvet et al) and directed by Justin Chadwick (helmer of the recent Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). To give the format even greater spark it was run twice weekly, turning it into a high class prime time soap opera but one with the kind of depth, emotion, complexity, and strangeness that real soap operas could never dream of. This approach served not only to lend a febrility to the storytelling but also leant the serial greater fidelity to the way Dickens originally presented his stories to the public.

This Bleak House managed to capture the variousness of the book’s nature while grounding the arguably problematic character of the saint-like Esther Summerson in greater reality thanks to both the writing and a sympathetic performance from Anna Maxwell Smith. As is usually the case with BBC costume drama the cast was excellent
with Denis Lawson (John Jarndyce), Charles Dance (Tulkinghorn), Burn Gorman, Alun Armstrong (Bucket – possibly the first detective in British fiction), and Pauline Collins amongst others, standing out. The greatest performance was probably that of Gillian Anderson – aptly described by that esteemed gentleman the Perfumed Dandy as “luminous” – portraying the tragic, complicated Lady Dedlock in a tour de force, confirming her underrated brilliance as an actress.

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The adaptation took on the difficult task of bringing Dickens’s labyrinthine tale of Chancery, tangled relationships, social injustice, romance, facial disfigurement, buried secrets, and spontaneous human combustion and accomplished it with aplomb. Visually striking, grotesque, humorous, and moving, Bleak House is highly recommended.

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Thanks to the Dandy for inspiring this post and thanks for reading.

9 comments

  1. Dearest George (and V)
    *Bows deeply*
    Such an eloquent setting out of the virtues of this excellent televisual endeavour.
    Everything is just as you say and Andersen is absolutely a ‘tour de force’.
    Her face is a body of winter frozen water, life stirring somewhere in the thawed depths beneath.
    I understood that ratings-wise it was success, bolstered by the brave decision to schedule straight after an actual soap, so have never understood why the exercise was not repeated.
    Andersen’s ethereal Miss Haversham in (a less well realised in some ways though commendable) Great Expectations, is also a performance more than worthy of note.
    Thank you again for such a wise and well written piece.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • George Kaplan

      Dearest Dandy, thanks ever so much for your delightful and complimentary response,.you are too kind. I am in compleat agreement with you, as for the arcane workings of the BBC (a great institution with an appetite for self-destruction and bizarre moves) why they neglected to capitalize no man can say!
      I adore your description of Ms Anderson as Lady Dedlock, exquisite.
      Sincerely

      • George Kaplan

        Sincerely, George – I meant to write!
        I very much appreciate your perfectly generous words, I hope you enjoy the House of Mirth post, too.

  2. Heather in Arles

    Bleak House is most likely my favorite Dickens novel so I thank you for this recommendation Mr K…not least of all as it is starring a fellow redhead!!!

  3. angryricky

    You argue well for it, but I didn’t care for it. I didn’t see the whole series, because the first episode was enough to do me in. I think that Lady Dedlock’s storyline works well in the novel because it begins in such an ordinary manner; it even seems a little boring until you see what the bland surface is concealing. The TV adaptation didn’t do that. It went straight to portraying Lady D as mentally unstable. The feel of the adaptation was darker than necessary; I have a friend who says that Bleak House should be written with an exclamation point like a Rodgers/Hammerstein musical, and I think the book has a great deal of humor and ordinariness without constantly being a dark, heavy drama.

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