Archive for the ‘Charles Dickens’ Category

Sir Michael Hordern as Scrooge

Just a quick note to wish everyone who visits my blog a happy and peaceful Christmas break. Over the past few festive seasons I’ve usually watched the Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol, which I have reviewed here in the past, but this year I had a change by watching a 1977 BBC version starring Sir Michael Hordern as Scrooge and John Le Mesurier, best-known as Sergeant Wilson in the much-loved comedy series Dad’s Army, as Marley. I think this is only available on a Dutch DVD or as part of the Charles Dickens BBC Collection, but you can also find it posted on Youtube at the moment.

This is a very small-scale version, packed into just an hour, but I liked it very much – I grew up in the 1970s, and often enjoy adaptations made then. Director Moira Armstrong has made a number of other costume dramas, including some episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford. This short film has a feel of the original illustrations, and also I think all the dialogue in Elaine Morgan’s script is taken from Dickens’ original words. Sir Michael had earlier played Marley in the famous Alastair Sim version (Scrooge, 1951), which is many people’s favourite – I will hope to watch that one soon and compare. Anyway, I get the feeling Sir Michael has great fun as Scrooge, speaking his most outrageous lines in the early scenes with a gleeful wit, and then also making his gradual transformation believable. Le Mesurier doesn’t have very much screen time but his vagueness works well for a ghost, and the special effects are good for the period, I’d say.

John Le Mesurier as Marley

There is a fine support cast – June Brown, famous as Dot in EastEnders, has a chilling cameo as Mrs Dilber, the horrible woman who steals the shirt from Scrooge’s corpse in his vision of the future, while others to watch out for include John Salthouse as the young Scrooge, Zoe Wanamaker as Scrooge’s sweetheart Belle, Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Tracey Childs, who starred in a BBC version of Sense and Sensibility, as Scrooge’s sister, Fan, and Zelah Clarke, who later starred in a version of Jane Eyre, as Martha Cratchit. Anyway, no time to write a full-length review but I’d recommend this to anyone who gets a chance to watch it, and happy Christmas to all who are celebrating.


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I see the BBC has announced several new films and dramas at Cannes (not sure if these are all feature films?) – some we already knew about but others are new. Here are a couple of links for more information, to the BBC press office and Screen Daily.

Several of these are period/costume dramas- one new announcement is an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ secret relationship with actress Ellen Ternan. I thought Tomalin’s book was excellent and the screenwriter, Abi Morgan, did a great job in adapting Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, so this could be a fine production, but all the same, I’m a bit fed up that adaptations of Dicken’s actual works, such as the Dombey and Son Andrew Davies had been working on, get scrapped, but there is still money to fund a biopic focusing on a scandal. Maybe if it does really well it will persuade the BBC to get on with some new versions of some of his novels or short stories – there are loads of those which have never been adapted at all, and I haven’t heard anything for ages about the David Copperfield Davies is now supposed to be working on instead of Dombey.

Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton star in The Awakening, which is described as a classic ghost story in the tradition of MR James and set in 1921, but isn’t actually a classic adaptation – it’s a new original script by Stephen Volk and director Nick Murphy. My hopes are high for this one as the BBC has such a great tradition of ghost stories – I wonder if it will turn up on TV or in the cinema at Christmas?

Stephen Fry is writing and directing Hallelujah!, about the build-up to the first performance of Handel’s Messiah – this is at an early stage by the sounds of it but should be well worth seeing.

In post-production is Ralph Fiennes’ eagerly-awaited film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – Fiennes will star as well as directing, and Vanessa Redgrave also stars, along with Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and James Nesbitt. The new BBC Films version of Jane Eyre is also currently being filmed, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and directed by Cary Fukunaga – I really have to wonder if a new version can possibly add anything to all the great adaptations which have already been made of this novel, but I know I will go and see it just the same.

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Sorry again not to have been around much – I’ve  just had a couple of days away from home and am still behind with reviews I want to write! But, anyway, here is a bit of costume drama news.

This week’s Radio Times in the UK carries the news that Andrew Davies’ new adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s great series of novels The Pallisers has been axed. Davies says the BBC is going downmarket and now only commissioning adaptations of big-name works – he has also been asked to adapt David Copperfield instead of Dombey and Son, which I’m a bit disappointed about as DC has been done so many times already.

I haven’t found the Radio Times article online, but here is a link to another
report quoting the same comments:
I’m mystified by the quote saying that Davies is now adapting Arnold Bennett’s South Riding Just editing (October 6) to say that today’s Radio Times has a correction pointing out that this novel is in fact by Winifred Holtby – and that it was the magazine’s mistake, not his!  This one has been adapted before, but not for a long time, and I will be interested to see it.

On a happier note, the BBC starts showing the new Sandy Welch adaptation of
Jane Austen’s Emma this weekend – I’m really looking forward to it and also hoping it gets brilliant ratings to give TV costume drama a badly-needed shot in the arm.

ITV’s recent mini-series of Wuthering Heights, which I thought was powerful
although flawed in places, did fairly well in terms of ratings (the Radio Times
claims 4.28 million was disappointing, but I would have thought it was pretty
good during the main summer holiday period) and has also sold to networks all over the world. Possibly on the back of that, ITV has now commissioned Downton Abbey, a major nine-part series scripted by Julian Fellowes about a country house in the Edwardian era and around the First World War, which will be about both the family and the servants, as with Upstairs Downstairs – so maybe costume drama is already starting to bounce back.

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Dickens’ Christmas classic must be one of the most -adapted literary works, with a bewildering range of versions from silent films to The Muppet Christmas Carol and various modernisations, some more successful than others. (I’m especially fond of the Bill Murray movie Scrooged.) 

Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and Dominic West as Fred

Over the last few years, it’s become a tradition in my household to watch the TV film starring Patrick Stewart, so I thought I’d write a little bit about it for this new blog – and wish a happy Christmas to anyone reading along .


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I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s epic new adaptation of the Dickens classic Little Dorrit, his great novel centred on London’s Marshalsea prison, so here are a few rambling thoughts about it.  After being impressed by the double feature film adaptation directed by Christine Edzard in 1988, I did wonder if a TV version could possibly live up to my memory of that film. It did – although I think the visuals of the earlier movie version were more striking and got the feeling of the prison better. It is years since I’ve seen it, but I vividly remember the flies gathering on the jail windows in that version and the way the oppressive heat almost shimmered from the screen.

Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

This version, with three different directors in charge of different episodes, didn’t have that same haunting visual power – just as the recent BBC version of Bleak House waisn’t shrouded in fog and shadows like the adaptation  made 20 years earlier. Both the more recent adaptations of Dickens novels scripted by Davies  instead tended to focus in on the faces of the characters, in the way that soap opera does. Having said that, I don’t think the new Little Dorrit series felt like soap at all – it’s laced with so much Dickensian black comedy and satire, though at times I did miss the voice of the narrator in the book. 


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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. 

Sophie Vavasseur and Sir Derek Jacobi

Sophie Vavasseur and Sir Derek Jacobi

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.

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