An Open Letter to Future Oxford Applicants

Ok, so today’s big sort of silly news story is about a girl named Elly Nowell who sent a rejection letter to Magdalen College, Oxford. The letter has been a popular internet meme for a couple of days and apparently has been knocking around on sites like The Student Room for even longer. But today, a relatively slow news day in the still of mid-winter, its hit the big time with mentions across a good chunk of the major news outlets.

Oh no, wait, that’s Hogwarts

Umm… you know the letter was a joke right?

That’s a really good question, imagined interpolator. This letter is all over my twitter feed today and a lot of people – people I know or have worked with or whose opinions I generally respect – seem pretty keen on its contents. This could of course just be because they like Nowell’s feistiness and self-belief. But for a lot of people reading it, this joke will increase or create a prejudice about Oxford that is largely unfounded. A whole bunch of these people might apply there in the future and I find it kind of sad that the hours of work that an army of staff and volunteers within the university put into access and outreach on a weekly basis will be undone for the sake of a slow news day.

Alright, but why do you care so much about this one letter?

For a load of reasons that will make me sound pretty unlikeably earnest. But basically, I was in this girl’s position myself four years ago – lower middle class background, state school, Oxford interview, typical sort of thing. Three years at Oxford really opened my mind and my imagination – it changed the way I look at the world. I was taken care of, treated well by the institution both personally and, quite frankly, financially. Oxford provides the best financial support of any British uni, and if it hadn’t been for their bursary I’d be swimming in debt right now.

It occurs to me that a lot of people who enjoyed the letter on my twitter feed are graduates from a time when the system was cheaper than it is now and it wasn’t quite as important to get into a university with Oxford’s resources.

I’ve got nothing against Elly Nowell, Oxford isn’t the right place for everyone, but it would be a real shame if other people weren’t afforded the opportunity to study in an environment as rich in creativity and ideas as Oxford, as I was.

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“grand formal settings”

Someone else’s Oxford: from the underrated film adaptation The Golden Compass

Nowell’s first point is that the “decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings… intimidates state school applicants”. It emerges from the conversation on The Student Room that Nowell was pooled to Magdalen. Being “pooled” is what happens when you make an open application to Oxford or when the college you apply to has too many applicants – it’s a way of moving people around so that everyone faces an equal level of competition – and it’s pretty unfortunate that Nowell was pooled to Magdalen, which is the very largest college.

I think for most state school students the fact that the buildings are quite nice isn’t much of an issue. But interestingly, this is one of the reasons why I applied to my college, the cosy Teddy Hall. I wasn’t intimidated by the big colleges as Nowell was, it was more that my brain had compartmentalised “heritage site” and “places I could live” pretty distinctly and put the big colleges like Christ Church in the former and smaller ones like Teddy Hall in the latter.

If this is a feeling you share, then Corpus Christi is particularly small and friendly whilst St Catherine’s has the most modern buildings and it’s always worth marking a preference if you have one.

More broadly, I think it’s an odd complaint – I mean where is Magdalen meant to do its interviews? Its buildings just look like that, they’re nice buildings. Hiring somewhere offsite, and marching interviewees over there just to do an interview in a slightly shitter room seems to me absurd. I’m not being facetious, I just really can’t see a viable alternative.

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“traditions and rituals”

Rituals weirder than our’s: a man blows up a pig’s bladder

Her second point is that the “traditions and rituals” of Oxford were off-putting for her and contradictory to the aims of a free-thinking institution. Whilst that may be true, they’re really not a big deal. I mean I never found that wearing a gown for the induction ceremony got in the way of my thinking about Victorian Literature or whatever.

Personally, I quite like weird little traditions, whether that’s putting a tree inside at Christmas, or watching a morris dance or wearing a carnation to university exams. Nowell accuses these rituals of being “illogical”, which is kind of why I like them. Once you get to university you’ll have to work pretty hard, a bit of fluff and tradition and “illogical” revelry is exactly the escape you might need. For example, at our college there’s a tradition (I assume quite a recent one) of standing on the chairs in the hall at the Christmas meal and singing the Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

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“white middle-class students”

The Cowley Road Carnival in Oxford

Nowell’s third point, that she observed an “obvious gap between minorities and white middle-class students” could mean a number of things and it’s not one hundred percent clear what she’s getting at i.e. whether she witnessed discrimination or if minority students she met weren’t flourishing in their studies or whatever. But what I think she’s getting at is an issue of numbers i.e. that she met very few students from less traditional backgrounds. This is clearly a problem for the university, which takes in slightly less than the average number of ethnic minority students when compared with similar institutions.

But if you’re from a less traditional background, I would hate discussions like this to put you off – Oxford really does want you to apply and it’s through people like you applying that the problem will get better. The second thing I would say is that the university is pretty culturally diverse – there are a lot of international and visiting students and the place certainly doesn’t feel oppressively white. I witnessed considerably more racism at my state school than I did at Oxford.

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“glass of water”

Her fourth complaint is that she was not offered a glass of water in her interview. This might seem petty but I guess it’s the kind of small thing people remember. At the same time, don’t take this as reflective of the system as a whole – each college employs a team of current students to help at interviews and I remember having plenty of refreshments whilst I was waiting – coffee, biscuits, three free meals a day. Besides, the point is pretty clearly there to reinforce the sort of comic obnoxiousness of the letter and seems Nowell’s least serious.

Ok, so tradition can make some of us look silly

So, apologies to those people who endorsed Nowell’s sentiments on my twitter feed – I needed a sort of spring-board rhetorically to explain how this came into my sphere of reference and mean nothing personal by it. But anti-Oxford prejudice is really the biggest hurdle the uni faces when it comes to diversifying and every student put off by a stunt like this I think marks a pretty big loss to everyone involved.

If you are a university applicant with questions about Oxford feel free to comment below the line and I’ll try my best to answer what I can.

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Long May Poetry Rain

Review: Rain of Poems at the Poetry Parnassus, Southbank, London

The rain it rains. Photo by Charlotte Geater

At Jubilee Gardens last Tuesday a crowd of people celebrated an episode of state-sponsored littering. In an event orchestrated by Chilean arts collective Casagrande, the English and Spanish translations of poems by writers from Britain and around the world were dropped out of a helicopter, which perched in the air as a fleck on the lashes of the London Eye. It did this one hundred thousand times.

The crowds oo’d and ah’d and cheered as the poems rained down. I saw Simon Armitage and his wife cooing like they’d seen a sea-lion do a trick. Many ran to catch the falling paper in all sorts of odd places, very much a competitive sport to them like Ultimate Frisbee. Some climbed trees and policemen told them off.

Casagrande describe their event, which has happened in many cities that have suffered bombings across the world, as “an alternative image of the past and a gesture of remembrance but also a metaphor for the survival of cities and people.”

I hadn’t read that description before the event and I certainly didn’t think about anything like that during it. And were I a more cynical person I might even conjecture that it was little more than the sort of guff written beside paintings at badly curated exhibitions. But I am not a cynic and the description, whilst over-laden with abstract nouns, does have a ring of sincerity about it. Artists are rarely insincere about remembrance.

What I am more interested in, however, is the idea of poetry as the vehicle for this sort of message and as the substance of this kind of event. The Rain of Poems also asks – what is it about poetry that means this kind of off-the-wall, symbolically charged, dazzling event makes sense to us?  I probably wouldn’t go and see a Rain of Prose. A Rain of Tax Returns might have a certain satirical edge. A Rain of Post-cards, I’d say now you’re talking. I would stay well clear of a Rain of Arts Reviews.

But a Rain of Poems, that’s got legs. Why?

To some poetry is, superficially, a symbol of peace and grace. True, it is the language of funeral and mourning and delicate contemplation. But it is also the language of epic narrative, battles, dragons, brawls, drug-taking, visions and revisions, coke cans, abstraction, disruption and dentures.

What poetry is, is obstinate and awkward and patterned. It is predictable, yet unpredictable. More than perhaps any other form, it gives us clue after clue to which way it is going, sometimes following its own rules, sometimes flying off into another direction entirely. Appropriate, then, to see it falling from the sky.

It also demands its own space – it does not conform to word limits or the rules of the page. Another reason for it to make a lot of sense to see it demanding a spectacle, moving an audience – physically – to jump and dive and fight for it. I was pleased on Tuesday to hear none of the usual quibbles when poetry and stunt are combined, of dumbing down, of selling out, of vulgarity. This is partly, of course, because the physicality and spectacle of the act defy an immediate intellectual response: it is more than enough for it to be pretty and cool and exciting.

My three poems! Photo by Charlotte Geater

The event was not a competition. But if it was, I got my ass kicked. More dexterous audience members had scavenged for whole wads of bookmark-shaped verse. I got three. Mine were from Belgium, North Korea and Uzbekistan. My favourite is the one fromBelgium, originally written in Flemish by a poet named Els Moors.

She writes, in the guise of the gardener who tends to a golf course: “in a glass ticket booth I am selling ice-cream / to the visitors”. Is that usefulness, symbolism, tourism or an essential keeper of the peace? Sometimes, it is hard to say.

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The BBC Dickens Season: Post-Mortem

Warning: The paragraphs on Great Expectations contain SPOILERS.

Three months into the BBC’s Dickens Season it does not seem to have ended, with several Dickensian offerings still knocking around on iPlayer. Reports of its death in my titled “post-mortem” are therefore greatly exaggerated. But it’s fair to say that the bulk of the programming, including all of its major flagships, has been and gone. How, then, to draw any conclusions from the sheer glut of Victorianalia spread out to TV and radio audiences like the largest turkey in the window on Christmas morning?

"The broadcasters, they did it all in three months"

Whenever the Beeb does a ‘Season’ of anything – race, poetry, Stephen Fry – you can guarantee that one phrase will sum up its overall quality: “mixed success”. I think this is just inherent in the vision of unifying so many styles and audiences under one thematic banner with several contrasting artistic strings pulling in all sorts of directions that they don’t usually pull. Something has to give.

My argument in this post is this: that the BBC did well at the Dickens, not so well at the Season. Well at the Dickens for the imagination and innovation in the season’s best bits and for the depth of courage given to his work, life and legacy. But not so well at the Season, because it lacked range, focus and coherency across platforms. The biggest flaw may have been that the season’s central online interface was hard to navigate and almost impossible to find. I know, I just blew your mind with that zinger, right? But it means that the broadcaster both missed the opportunity to exploit the multi-platform potential of the season and to commission some cool Dickensian graphics.

Ok, let’s talk about Dickens and let the Season stuff fall in around it. Or more particularly let’s talk about people talking about Dickens: Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins, both of whom presented those single-author celebrity-fronted documentaries of which the Beeb are so fond. Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens was undoubtedly excellent – passionate polemic advocating the love of Dickens for the sake of his writing. There was little argument here, just a very enthusiastic clever bloke enthusing cleverly, just as Iannucci had done on his superb Milton doc for the Poetry Season two years ago.

Sue Perkins: a threat to Howard Jacobson's very manhood

More controversial was Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, in which Sue Perkins playfully poked around in Dickens’s troubled biography to reveal the oddities of his family life. It provoked Howard Jacobson to rant in the Guardian that Perkins was “sneering” at Dickens, not only as a husband but – and please frame this in your mind in a big over-dramatic voice – “as a man”. That’s right, that Sue Perkins should be so audacious to have sympathy for the women in Dickens’s life is a direct cause of the shrinking Y chromosome.

Now, at university I was very much a scholar of Dickens’s language and social politics – I am not on good terms with his biography. But there was nothing in Perkins’s documentary that made me suspect it was anything other than well argued, well researched and in reverence to Dickens as a writer. It even, I think, pulled off that sometimes problematic sweep from biographical to literary detail. It’s telling that in Jacobson’s article he says effectively nothing about the argument of Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, but makes his case by (mis)characterising the tone. You can make any argument sound bad if you accuse someone of ‘sneering’ it (just as I labled Jacobson’s article a “rant” a paragraph ago). It doesn’t make Dickens a good husband, nor does it make Perkins’s script any less witty, or the subject of Dickens’s family life any less interesting a one for a documentary.

Jacobson also had problems with the season’s biggest hit, Great Expectations. Here he stumbles on something much more interesting, accusing it of presenting a reading that “suits our would-be egalitarian times”. Now, this does not mean it was not good drama. Directorially, the thing was a treat, with the breathing sighing moorland and wonderfully framed action, which beautifully underlined the story’s fantasy leanings. But there was something odd about it for anyone who’s read the novel.

In the novel, as in the adaptation, the little boy Pip meets the escaped convict Magwitch and gets him a file (to cut his chains), and some food. But there’s one important difference that I think shows in miniature what the script editor was up to in the production as a whole. In the book, Magwitch asks for the food and Pip, who is scared absolutely shitless by the guy, feels almost physically compelled to do his bidding. It’s a religious relationship, similar to that with a vengeful Old Testament God. He fears punishment, resents charity. But in the show, Magwitch just asks for the file – the good little soul Pip takes it upon himself to give the guy some cake. Magwitch looks positively elated, a moment of shared compassion flickers between them. Dickens’s original fable demonstrates how fear and compassion-less charity are no substitute for human contact. (The book is obsessed with hands – Pip longs to touch. Not to receive money, or a fist, but simply a hand.)

And here’s the important thing: if you let Pip get the food himself, out of compassion, then the whole relationship changes. Instead of an unearned fortune, Pip inherits Magwitch’s wages in some kind of cosmic, karmic justice.

A modern Vicotorian: Sherlock

The drama didn’t have the confidence to deal with this moral ambiguity, so it eliminated it. Pip, it thought, cannot be a benefit scrounger. Our audience cannot cope with a morally ambiguous hero, they reasoned as Sherlock, Dr Who, House and a hundred other dramas blazed from TV screens proving them wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Great Expectations despite these things – the performances and atmosphere were terrific – but they would still have been terrific without blunting the tale’s emotional complexities.

In fact, Sue Perkins aside, the TV leg of the season was characterised by its conservatism. It’s a particular shame the only TV fiction commissioned for the season was Costume Drama – even the only comedy, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, was Costumed. It seemed oblivious to the exciting contemporaneity of Dickens, of his potential for modern adaptation. Where were Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding to stylise the surreal, trippy riffs embedded in The Pickwick Papers? Or the trans-Atlantic commission for a modern, high velocity Martin Chuzzlewit?

That seems an ambitious ask, but then the new radio fiction commissioned for the season abounded with this kind of ambition and even loftier inventiveness. Firstly, Dreaming Dickens, hidden away on BBC World Service (although I guess “hidden” isn’t the right word for a place where nominally the whole world can hear it) – a blend of drama, documentary and found sound in which extracts from an exciting range of Dickens’s writing guide us through London, a London that blends dream, imagination, reality and the dirt beneath your feet. This was a mood piece, all about connecting the emotion of Dickens to the streets he left behind.

from Radio 4's Dickens in London

And secondly (my highlight of the Season), Dickens in London, an extraordinary set of new 15-minute plays commissioned for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Written by Michael Eaton and starring, among others, the phenomenal Antony Sher (you know Antony Sher, you probably saw him in a Shakespeare once), these stories were slightly farcical, non-naturalistic pieces that followed the personas of Dickens throughout his life, as if whole new characters existing somewhere in the spaces between Dickens’s short stories and Eaton’s imagination. Dramatically, these were brilliant, finding a great artistic space to play around and fanaticise in the margins of Dickens’s work – true to the emotion of Dickens, flippant with the letter.

But what’s even more exciting is that each of these plays is visualised on the Radio 4 website. ‘Visualised Radio’ is the current ‘big deal’ in radio broadcasting and, having heard a lot about it at the Radio Fast Train conference earlier this month, I have to admit my initial scepticism. But Dickens in London has converted me – short films that support the primacy of the audio to tell the story. They’ve got what you might call the ‘grammar’ of radio – it’s structured like radio, it feels like radio but it’s something more. The visuals themselves include beautiful puppetry, alarming fighting shoes and talking oven gloves. If you check out one strand in the whole season, check out these.

It’s exactly the kind of innovation the BBC – and for that matter Dickens – is all about.

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Desperate Plotlines – How Desperate Housewives has (almost) refound its mojo

The following was written for a job application, answering the task of analysing a recent TV drama (focusing on writing). I went for the opening of the new series of Desperate Housewives (going by the British/E4 schedule rather than American/ABC). I thought it was pretty good. I guess they didn’t agree but I think it’s something TV blog-types will enjoy reading. It contains SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the current series, otherwise you should be fine.

Desperate Housewives is not usually the best show on television. Since season two it has rarely matched the standard it set itself for suburban subversion and dark witticism in season one. But nor has it ever really been a bad show. This, the first episode of the show’s eighth and final season, is testament to that fact and already promises a vast improvement on the flagging quality of seasons six and seven.

There are a bunch of things that have always made Desperate Housewives worth watching and they’re worth noting before I delve into an analysis of the episode’s writing because I think a lot of people forget how good a show it is. It has a really solid aesthetic, with its trim pristine character, almost dystopic in its opulence and middle class domestic perfection. Additionally, I don’t think anyone who’s seen the show doubts the quality of the cast and personally I think Felicity Huffman who plays Lynette is one of the best female actors on American television, as good as Jane Lynch. And I don’t just mean as good as Jane Lynch in Glee. I mean as good as Jane Lynch in Party Down.

The strength of this episode’s writing is rooted in last season’s cliff-hanger, the murder of Gabrielle Solis’s evil step father by her husband Carlos. The four principle characters are all privy to this and the episode opens with them burying his body in the woods and forming a pact to cover it up. This plotline changes everything, completely re-arranging the show’s relationships and what they mean. Desperate Housewives is of course used to redefining its core set-up, jumping five years in its continuity between seasons four and five in order to spice up its line-up and open new storylines. This new murder storyline marks as large a shift in tone and, although it initially seems like quite a blunt device, is actually a lot more subtle.

Foremost among these changes is that each of the show’s romantic relationships is now either under the strain of a shared secret – i.e. Gabrielle and Carlos – or a hidden truth, as none of the other husbands and boyfriends are yet privy to the cover-up. This means that the show’s dark humour and psychological tensions are at last arranged in the right way. For example, Susan’s plotline presiding over the burial of a school hamster, eulogising it as if it is Gabrielle’s step father, is a cross-roads of all sorts of comic contrasts and parallels. Like the confessional scene with the over-enthusiastic junior priest who is “bummed he can’t tweet anymore”, it proves the show’s ability to still be laugh-out-loud funny.

Lynette and Tom’s plotline meanwhile is painfully well observed. The couple are separating but have so far kept it from their children. Since Lynette can’t sleep through guilt over the murder, she finds solace in Tom at night and the two are, shall we say, reunited. The scene the next morning is one of those perfect Desperate Housewives scenes. Tom assumes they will get back together whilst Lynette only needed comfort – she just can’t tell him why. One has a typical romantic problem, the other an extreme and deranged plotline – but because each character is written with an immense level of emotional depth, each seems real and sympathetic. Small drama and overwhelming darkness stare each other in the face, unable to communicate but inexorably linked. That is what Desperate Housewives is all about.

The other great thing about the murder device is that it gives the housewives a unified storyline, saving the show from the fragmentation its multiple plotlines have caused in recent series. Even when the principle characters are apart, the strain of the secret unifies them to the whole. The episode is also full of exquisite details. For example Bree reminding the man stealing her car to “buckle up” as he drives away or Lynette tripping over the same sprinkler on the lawn that we have seen Tom trip over already – this attention to detail reminds us that someone cares about how the show is put together and gives us extra little things to notice.

It still has problems. The scene in which Gabrielle embarrasses herself by fantasising about their new neighbour whilst he stands right behind her looks almost like a Family Guy-level parody of the show, right down to the coffee mugs and coy eye brow raising. There are also too many scenes to which the punch line is someone being good in bed.

Mary Alice Young’s closing and opening monologues are actually very good in this episode, letting the visuals do the dark subversive dealing-with-a-murder stuff whilst Brenda Strong’s soothing tones juxtapose this and sound like the audio book of a housewives’ manual. But too often this narrative style has seemed tired in later seasons. Young’s role as narrator made sense in season one, which was largely about the mystery surrounding her own death, but without this solid rationale her role became much more limited as the seasons progressed. A way round this would have been to narrate each season with a different character, using a death from the previous series each time. Given the show’s high body count this would not have been difficult.

Desperate Housewives, despite retaining a sizeable audience, is desperately out of fashion and has long stopped being the zeitgeist phenomenon it once was. To close at the end of this season is a good call on the part of the producers – but it’s fantastic to see the writers giving the characters and plot a final new lease of life. And, with the closing shots of a mysterious note in Bree’s mailbox, you just know there’s gonna be trouble.

Viewers will know that the series has meandered a little since I composed this, but for proof of the unity provided by the murder plot, just look at the fantastic symmetry at the end of the episode 7 last week – the body resurfacing in the painting just as it is buried below the house. I mean they totally nailed that, structurally speaking.

ALSO: I’ve been getting a lot of traffic on my BBC/Dickens posts – I’m afraid I won’t have time to give the remainder of the season the coverage I’d like, but look out for a summary this weekend.

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The Son of a Preacherman: Speaking in Tongues goes live

Firstly, a sorry and a thank you. A sorry for the two-week gap in posts and a thank you to the overwhelming response I had to my post on Elly Nowell and Oxford University. It seemed to go a bit viral there for a while so a special thanks to all who posted and retweeted.

Today’s post is a bit different because there aren’t going to be as many words. Instead, it’s an audio post with a radio play that I worked on last summer. The play is called Speaking in Tongues, a domestic drama about a family thrown into turmoil when one of them falls ill. It’s been running in serialised form on the Cherwell website for the last three weeks and is available in its entirety on the Soundcloud player below. Oh, and I also do some acting in it (but not until right at the end.)

The play was great fun to work on and I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out.

The next play in the series is called Amphibians. It’s written by me and is about a man who kills some newts. More on that soon.

Speaking in Tongues

Writer: Rob Williams
Producers: Loveday Wright & Tom Moyser

Cast (in order of appearance):

The Apologist – Dave Ralf
Michael – Richard O’Brien
Louise – Charlotte Geater
David – Rob Williams
Jennifer – Sarah Whitehouse
Terry – Jack Hackett
Billy – Tom Moyser

A few more details can be found here. With thanks to Oxide Radio and Cherwell Online.

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A Vague Vibration in the Earth and Air: The Dickens Season on BBC Radio

I don't really know what this is either.

Earlier in the week on The Drive-in Bingo, I reviewed the first bit of flagship output from the BBC’s Dickens Season, the underwhelming The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, as sprawling a mess as the alleyways of Oliver Twist’s London (but with none of the character).

But the Dickens Season actually spluttered into life just at the end of November, as Radio 4 presented a recent Dickens biography – Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life – as their Book of the Week and has continued since across BBC Radios 3, 4 and their diminutive, clammy handed cousin 4extra.*

Much of it has involved the BBC spicing up and roasting that old radio chestnut, monologue. Monologue (simply, one person speaking) is an excellent form for radio, which the BBC does very well on strands like Four Thought. There’s something primal and personal about monologue that harks back to the days of public oration, preachers and proclamations. Indeed Dickens himself, famed for his huge, popular public readings, put this sense into the very fabric of his writing.

Tomalin’s biography, however, is read by Penelope Wilton. You may remember Wilton as Harriet Jones in the David Tennant days of Dr Who, the Prime Minister whose entire premiership the Doctor topples by simply whispering “doesn’t she look tired” into a nearby ear. She sounds it too. Wilton sounds less like a broadcaster, more like the reader on a language-learning tape: refined, clear, unnatural, slow. To be fair to Wilton, who is an engaging screen actor, broadcasting alone without a live audience is, as I’ve learnt myself on the odd occasion I’ve had to do it, quite a challenge.

Similar problems are initially true of the Radio 3 output, which presents 15 minutes on Dickens each night this week in its regular segment The Essay. But things really got going on Wednesday with A L Kennedy’s impassioned, and subtly politicised, speech on misery and suffering in Nicholas Nickleby. The writers amongst you will also be interested in Thursday’s edition in which Alexander McCall Smith discusses the craft of writing serialised fiction. Listen out for the repeated use of the phrase “serial author”, used as if McCall Smith is unwittingly admitting to some terrible crime.

Elsewhere, 4extra repeated a reading of Dickens’s surreal short, ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, a whimsical tale of a graveyard invaded by monsters. It’s hammed up in fine style by Clive Francis, an entertaining tale for family audiences, true to the campness of the original.

But radio doesn’t really come alive until there’s an element of discussion – whether the other side of that discussion is an interviewer, a co-presenter, an opponent or a live audience: radio needs voices.

It should be no surprise, then, that by far and away the best Dickens programme of the season so far was the Christmas edition of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. Canon Giles Fraser, Claire Tomalin (a far fiercer speaker than she is a writer) and Susan Hill discuss the interlocking themes of the meaning of Christmas, Dickens’s society, and ghost stories. The opposition of the speakers brings out the most startling intellectual and emotional insight into their topics, cutting through spirituality, art, politics and morality much as Dickens himself might have if he had, like those writers just a generation and a half below him, lived into the age of the wireless.

A Victorian on the BBC: H G Wells

*I say that purely to cast 4extra as a comic Dickensian character – 4extra is, of course, a wonderful accompaniment to the BBC’s output.

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Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff


Few TV writers can feel as lucky, professionally speaking, as the author of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, Mark Evans. Evans, who quilled Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations, was an obvious choice for a BBC2 commission to kick off the television output of the BBC’s Dickens Season. Not only did that guarantee him an audience, but also gave his writing the benefit of what looks to have been quite a sizeable budget as well as some of the country’s best loved comic actors: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Fry.

What’s more Charles Dickens provides, for Evans’s source material, one of the richest legacies of work a single writer has left us since Shakespeare. There are, accordingly, plenty of silly names, gratuitous facial hair and wind-up top hats that get bigger with the dramatic tension. On paper this light Dickensian parody could have been one of the funniest shows of the year.

So what the Dickens went wrong?

First, three things that went resoundingly right. Terrence “The Demon Headmaster” Hardiman running around with a goose on his head stole every scene he was in, whilst everyone who even laid a stitch on the absurd sumptuousness that was the show’s costumes should give themselves a good old-fashioned bravo. Especially the hats. I also couldn’t help but smile every time the lead character’s full name, Jedrington Secret-Past, was mentioned.

The trouble with The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff in fact is more fundamental: it doesn’t understand parody.

Parody can work in a number of ways. It can take an established trope or sequence and put it into an entirely new place – exposing both that familiar place and that familiar trope as odd, fraudulent even. Or it can out-do its source, exposing its own fraudulence in the process. Think of the product placement parody in Wayne’s World. Or take this scene from US sitcom Community, the culmination of a plotline that out-paranoids the best conspiracy theory movies in dazzling style:

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, however, views parody as just: the thing it’s parodying, but a bit shit. Instead of out-doing the classic Dickensian plotlines by escalating their ridiculousness, shifting them to another setting, or by bringing another setting’s tropes into the Dickensian realm, Evans instead treads in Dickens’s shadow, saying what Dickens says, but in a funny voice – a tone inherited by the one-note “plot exposition with a veneer of irony” style of the show’s actors.

Part of the problem is that Dickens is himself a parodist – even Jedrington Secret-Past’s name is not as grotesquely obvious as the title character of one of my favourite Dickens short stories, ‘Captain Murderer’. You can guess what he does by the end of the story. Dickens’s language, modern screen audiences are liable to forget, is itself often deliberately old-fashioned, playing a game with the heightened language of the author’s predecessors, a game in which Dickens sets the rules, moves the goal posts and somehow has the warped logic to end with a home run every time.

David Mitchell’s character, Jolliforth, is one of the few things in the show worthy of a Dickensian label. Jolliforth gets bigger when he’s happier, inflating to an amazing size. But when he’s sad, such as when nasty mister Skulkingworm whispers bleak thoughts in his ear, he gets thinner and thinner. A good parody is like Jolliforth when he’s happy – it just keeps growing and growing into absurdism. But when you handle parody cynically, without any artistic purpose, it’s bound to deflate. Like Jolliforth, its life depends on the richness of the ideas whispered into its ear.

If what you’re looking for this Christmas is a TV show that presents funny scenes on bookish topics with Stephen Fry in it, then watch Horrible Histories. If you want a fun romp set in a CGI Victorian London with Stephen Fry in it, then go out and see the new Sherlock Holmes film. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff hasn’t got enough stuff or enough nonsense for your swettlepence.

The endeavour was worth it, however, for us to discover one very important thing: David Mitchell looks really good with a handle bar moustache.

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