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?
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.
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.
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.
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.