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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9 responses to “Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

  1. Pingback: A Vague Vibration in the Earth and Air: The Dickens Season on BBC Radio | The Drive-in Bingo

  2. Olivia Byard

    I actually agree with this critique – you’re right, David Mitchell was the only character that worked, except for man with the goose on his head. I found Stephen Fry a little embarrassing.

  3. Crustynugget

    If the mark of a great comedy is “Did it make me laugh my a** off all the way through?” then this was a great comedy. I loved it! Can’t understand all the moaning about it. Half the actors in it, to say nothing of the writer, could give you, dear writer who presumes superiority for no earned reason, a lesson in parody that would make your pretentious lecture run under the couch with its tail between its legs.

    • Hi Crustynugget, thanks for reading – obviously glad you enjoyed the show, indeed the reaction on Twitter was largely favourable so you’re probably in more of a majority than you realised.

      I do want to briefly call you up on this accusation of presumed superiority, as you put it – the thing that proves the validitiy of my opinions is that everything is backed up with arguments, I haven’t said anything unfounded. Critics don’t presume superiority (or even inferiority) – we just join in the conversation from a stand-point that has a bit of knowledge and experience behind it – my post is no more or less than that.

      • Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, however, views criticism as just: the thing it’s criticising, but a bit shit. Instead of out-doing the classic Critics pointlessness by escalating their ridiculousness, shifting them to another setting, or by bringing another setting’s tropes into the Critics realm, This review instead treads in other Critics shadows, saying what Critics say, but in a funny voice – a tone inherited by the one-note “critic expositions with a veneer of irony” …..

        Get a life !!!

  4. Lucas

    Surprised to see such a negative review. I thought Evans et al. did wonders bringing Bleak Expectations to the television screen. I thoroughly enjoyed Fry’s turn as the villian, thought Richard Johnson was nothing short of brilliant as the uncle character, found Johny Vegas’ urchin endearing and funny, enjoyed Mitchell, and Robert Webb was spot on as the title character, at least in most scenes. (I especially loved his portrayal of his character at its daftest, like when he enthousiasticly nodds and reacts “They can be amusing,” after the Fry character explained his evil laugh saying “I just saw a rather funny pidgeon flying past the window.”)

    I think it is and certainly can be more than a “the thing it’s parodying, but a bit shit” parody (hilarious characterization, BTW).

    Perhaps you should take your Dickens parody goggles of and enjoy The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff as the hilarious absurdist take on Victorian England I saw in it. I’m certainly not the biggest Dickens buff (for one thing I’m Dutch rather than British), but if you enjoy Community as much as I do (as you seem to), I think the series might grow on you.

  5. Dan

    A very astute review; entirely agree. Horribly pretentious “wacky sixth-formers” feel to the whole thing; alternated between terribly under- and over- written, and Robert Webb simply isn’t a good enough actor to carry off the main role. The radio version was pretty funny in places, this was not at all funny (at all) in any places. Shame.

  6. I thought last night’s show;The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff – Series 1 Episode 1, was utter drivel. It was not funny in any way. I struggled to watch it to the end and when it got there I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was so amateurish that I couldn’t believe the rubbish it was. I will certainly not watch any more. If lots of people like it then I wish it well, but I would be very surprised. It looked like it was almost improvised on the cuff; like “Whose line is it anyway.” but that was funny.

  7. Pingback: The BBC Dickens Season: Post-Mortem | The Drive-in Bingo

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