To transfer the work of Dickens onto the small screen is a massive task in its own, with millions of fans anticipating an adaptation which will have to be of a high standard to avoid the pitchforks coming out. So to take a number (over ten I think) of books by the great man and not only try to write a single series which encompasses all of these tales but also to create a new lore for books which many of are considered classics, is quite a task indeed.
You have to give it to the BBC, who took the risk to create a show which could so easily have been a messy disaster and in reality turned out absolutely great. It’s so unusual to see the BBC give a series 20 episodes, but Dickensian managed to fill all twenty with delicious intertwining plots which kept the viewer thoroughly engaged throughout.
Spoilers for the series are contained below.
Dickensian mainly tackles the books of A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist; however the series is a prequel to all of these books, something which gives the writers room to create a new plot with classic characters but forces them to stick close to the canon of their respective books.
The series begins with the murder of Jacob Marley, thus creating the murder mystery part of the series as we follow inspector Bucket (awesomely acted by Stephen Rea) around as he struggles with his new detective role, smartly intertwining with the many story strands which it also contains.
The three main plot strands were Great Expectations, Bleak House and the investigation of the murder of Jacob Marley. Throughout the series it seemed like the writers had decided to go against what Dickens had written for the characters in the future, however they instead were used as clever swings and misdirections. How often I cursed the screen at the dastardly Compeyson, cheered when it felt like Amelia had broken the spell or shook my head in disdain at Arthur’s cowardly ways, to ultimately be relieved but a little disappointed that what should have happened ultimately happened, and that is exactly how it should have been but I cared for the characters and was sad to see the moment play out in front of me.
Although Compeyson will be seen by many to be the top villain in Dickensian, I have to say that I thoroughly disagree. Yes Compeyson was distasteful and easily dislikeable but he had a means to an end, to benefit himself, in contrast Frances was just pure evil. She continually sabotaged her sister’s life for no other reason than because she wanted her to be unhappy, when her sister showed her nothing but love, hid the fact that Honoria’s child actually survived the child birth, finally destroying her relationship with Captain Hawdon, but probably worst of all she forced her into a marriage with Sir Leicester despite Honoria’s distinct lack of interest and Frances’ acute interest. Essentially Frances sabotaged her own happiness to make her own sister miserable, at least Compeyson had something to gain.
The biggest mystery in the series (both in progression and plot) was the investigation of Jacob Marley’s untimely demise. This was the one major area of story fabrication of the series, as they could really go anywhere with this because it is not in the canon of Dickens’ books. I have to say that I didn’t see the murderer being Mrs Cratchit; in fact it never even crossed my mind that it could have been a woman until Bucket made the discovery, which seems odd to write down, but the writers hid the chance of it being a woman very well. Often times the chase is the best part of a murder mystery; however you’ve guessed who it is about half way through and the reveal is anti-climactic, this for me was not one of those situations, very well handled and by no means a stretch.
One of the best things about Dickensian is its use of characters that weren’t central to the main plot but were added as comic relief. The use of the Mr and Mrs Bumble (and little Bumble too) was brilliant, with every moment they were on screen a true delight. Richard Ridlings and Caroline Quentin had great chemistry and acted the parts superbly, and still they were outshone by Mrs Gamp, which isn’t a criticism in any way but rather sheer adulation for Pauline Collins, who stole every scene she was in and brought light hearted relief throughout. Dickensian was quite a dark show in tone, so that light relief was crucial to keeping it in line with Dickens’ work and they did it very well.
The acting in general was superb in Dickensian. I know I have already mentioned a few performances, however there really wasn’t a weak performance in the entire cast. Characters like Fagin, Bill Sykes and Scrooge were perfectly cast and despite there being so many characters in the series, it felt like each person stamped something on the show.
Although the characters were in a setting which was unfamiliar, the majority of the characters were very recognisable, and there is a good chance that this is why each character was very relatable in their role. You were meant to hate Compeyson, sympathise with Nancy and tut at Scrooge’s meanness. It should be noted that just because you know the characters doesn’t mean you instantly care about them and that is where the writers did a great job, getting the audience emotionally invested in each character and gripping them into the story threads.
I’m really struggling to come up with many bad things to say in regards to Dickensian because it really didn’t do anything wrong. If I was nit-picking I would complain about the setting of some of the places (Satis House isn’t in London, nor is the Bumbles workhouse) and the timeline of the story (it felt like very little time had passed between Marley’s death and visiting Scrooge, Oliver skipping a few stages in his journey to the streets), but it would be overly harsh of me and I ain’t no Scrooge… The one thing I would say is that the story between Peter Cratchit and Nell didn’t really go anywhere, but it really isn’t that big a deal as it was a minor plot story.
The way Dickensian finished has very much left it open for a second series, which sounds great because this has been a very well-produced and executed TV series, despite that I think it should be a one off. They finished off their main stories so nicely that there is very little room left to explore (I guess we could watch Satis House get really dusty…) and will need to start telling the real stories rather than what pre-empted them. There is a lot of Dickens which hasn’t yet been explored and could be used for a second series and although I have my reservations about TV shows being needlessly stretched out (think Broadchurch) I am sure that the writers could handle it.
Dickensian really was a great TV adaptation of the works of Dickens, brilliantly acted by a brilliant cast with a brilliant script, not really much which went wrong. It may have been jerked around the schedule but it will no doubt go down as one of the year’s best series production, just goes to show that if you try to do something a bit different now and again you will reap the rewards.
Please take some time to leave a comment about what you thought about Dickensian. Would you get off the Compeyson ride? Does Captain Hawdon seem like the perfect drinking buddy? Or are you wondering where you can grab yourself one of those fancy Dodger hats? Leave a comment and share those musings.