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