So how do you fit a 900-page novel into a 90-minute TV film? Sadly, the inevitable answer is, by cutting almost everything out – leaving just a few glimpses of what might have been.
As a long-time Dickens fan, I had been pleased to hear ITV was doing an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop , especially since Sir Derek Jacobi was playing the grandfather. But I’d failed to realise just how much of the book would have to be lost – sacrificing even more of the story than the recent Jane Austen adaptations did. Directed by Brian Percival, who also made the 2005 North and South, this production looks beautiful. Visually, it often has a flavour of the original illustrations by Phiz and George Cattermole, but, because of its length, is completely inadequate to do justice to this sprawling novel.
Jacobi was superb as Arthur Clennam in the great double feature film version of Little Dorrit , and in this production he brings the same sensitivity to the grandfather – showing the conflict between his addiction to gambling and his love for his granddaughter, Nell. His eyes glitter with silent desire every time he sees money, and he moves his mouth very slightly and tremulously in a way which shows his inner turmoil. Sophie Vavasseur is also excellent as Nell – though at 15 she is rather older than the heroine of the novel, not so much of a child. She manages to seem vulnerable and yet determined, without the aura of mawkishness which surrounds the character in the novel.
Toby Jones also gives a fine performance as Quilp, though, inevitably, he’s not much like the monster of evil described in the book, who seems scarcely human. He might be short, but he isn’t a dwarf – and my feeling is that this is just as well, since it would be rather disconcerting to see someone playing on their physical appearance to induce fear and loathing. Jones makes Quilp villainous through the force of personality he projects rather than his looks – though he does at times strike theatrical physical attitudes which recall the illustrations, and Dickens’s descriptions in the text.
However, these three characters are the only ones who have any space at all to develop. The story, with a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, is almost entirely focused on a heavily truncated version of Nell and grandfather’s epic journey through England, with them running into only two or three of the grotesque and colourful characters who are among the chief delights of the novel. Mrs Jarley (Zoe Wanamaker) is glimpsed for a minute or two, her world-famous waxworks for even less.
Worst of all, Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness – everybody’s favourite characters in this book – are almost completely lost. Young actor Geoff Breton is wonderful as Dick and seems almost to be the character come to life from the old illustrations – but he gets no time to show off his brand of ludicrous charm, and his touching relationship with the scared scullery maid comes down to just a couple of brief conversations.
There are some wonderful moments in this production, such as the sheer melodrama of the scene when the sick Nell, wandering out into the snow in her nightgown, sees her grandfather gambling for pennies by candlelight at a wooden table. But if only it had been double or even treble the length.
One place where I was happy about brevity, though, was the famous death scene. Here, less is more – and there’s no need for a TV film to milk the emotions as shamelessly as the young Dickens did.