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Oliver Twist - David Copperfield

Oliver Twist dramatized by Alan Bleasdale, ITV November-December 1999
David Copperfield dramatized by Adrian Hodges BBC-1 Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1999.

The British continue to be proud of their reputation for doing classic novels on air and screen. But some current developments in the tradition should be taken into account when assessing recent examples of the genre. Oliver Twist Deregulation, market forces and closely related changes in our cultural climate have combined to effect serious change in the genre. Television costume drama is costly. Classic novels have recently again become popular on TV and attract good ratings and advertising revenue. The global media market is good for sales and encourages co-production. There is a potential conflict of loyalties at the heart of things, between fidelity to great literature and global marketability.

Oliver Twist may be a portent of what is to come. The variety of debt acknowledged by this version of Oliver Twist-it was produced by Diplomat Films in association with United Productions and WGBH Boston for HTV-may explain much.

It was never a simple matter translating narrative prose fiction to broadcast drama, but the long established British way of dramatizing classic novels, with roots going back half a century, on the whole maintained a tradition of fidelity to the novelist's intentions, insofar as they could be translated into broadcast drama. Writers dramatizing the novels were consistent in their endeavours faithfully to deliver the originals' story, narrative and meaning. In essence, the radio or television dramatist's art was put at the service of the novelist. Currently things seem to be changing.

Both Oliver Twist and David Copperfield present significant challenges to television. Alan Bleasdale, a distinguished dramatist in his own right, has achieves some impressive effects in Oliver Twist. The novel has a plot like a coiled spring, and whirrs away as soon as its catch is released. Alan Bleasdale was anxious about three aspects of Oliver Twist which would be 'problematic for a modern television audience'-the level of coincidence, latent anti-Semitism and tendency to sentimentality. He tries to lay the narrative on firm foundations in an extensive 'back story' by way of exposition, which took up most of the first broadcast episode. He was very taken by a section of Oliver Twist towards the end of the novel (Oliver Twist, Chapter 51 'Affording an Explanation of More Mysteries Than One, and Comprehending a Proposal of Marriage with No Word of Settlement or Pin-Money') where Dickens gives a brief resume of the plot mechanisms by means of which the entire narrative is launched-the details of Oliver's antecedents' relationships before his birth. The dramatist has worked these details up and written in what is in effect a prologue before the familiar opening scenes in the workhouse. 'Because Dickens was writing at such a furious pace and was making it up as he went along, certain things just get thrown away. Genius though he was, he just kept writing and threw those pages over his shoulder. So I've followed along behind him, picking them up' is how Bleasdale describes his method of work. And it works well, although it must have been a bit of shock to those viewers who previously thought knew the novel. It is not the case that Dickens worked out the plot of Oliver Twist before writing it, and then messed it up in the hasty process of scribbling away as the printer's boy waited for copy. Dickens concocted this plot very late in the actual composition of the novel. It is to Bleasdale's considerable credit that so much here actually structurally improves on the novelist's work, provoking though it might be to some textual purists. Bleasdale's hand can clearly be discerned time and again in the way he feeds plot motivation into scenes throughout, toning down the young novelist's tendency to free wheel through the Manichean world he had created to locate the action. Thus he reduces the sense readers experience at the end of the novel that so much unlikelihood is implausibly pulled together.

In the portrayal of Fagin we can see how Political Correctness and the need to play to the sensibilities of the international market affect the representation of Fagin. Every schoolboy knows that David Lean's Oliver Twist 1948 was shown in the USA only after some hefty editing had toned down Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin, but Alan Bleasdale's Fagin (Robert Lindsay) is a Czechoslovakian conjuror. He doe not have a big nose. Robert Lindsay played Fagin on stage in the West End musical Oliver! but, as he says, this was a new approach: 'The Fagin in this version is a magician, he's Bohemian, he's from Czechoslovakia and he happens to be Jewish. The fact that he's foreign is beguiling and romantic to the children; he lures them to him with some kind of exotic charisma....'

The exploitation of the character's fascination in his exotic 'otherness' is an interesting idea, and at times Robert Lindsay put me in mind of Fiddler on the Roof. But does this compromise Dickens's art? Dickens based Fagin on the real life Jewish criminal Ikey Solomons (1785-1850). Solomons was a master fence for several gangs. He was imprisoned in Newgate in 1831 and eventually transported to Hobart. He had as much as £20,000 worth of goods sometimes secreted in his premises (concealed in a hiding place under his bed) at Rosemary Lane and another establishment at Lower Queen Street, Islington. It was estimated in 1816 that there were about two hundred gangs of children operating in London, employing some six thousand boys and girls. (Thackeray used the name Ikey Solomons, junior, as his pseudonym when he published his Newgate Novel, Catherine, in 1840). How do we square this with contemporary ambitions to rid Dickens of sentimentality and the fact that Dickens was trying to portray social realities?

As for the sentimentality, this is ineradicably Dickensian, and distilling it off ruins the authenticity of its taste. This version of Oliver Twist counters the sentimental by over compensating on the violence, and there are several quite terrible moments. Sikes (Andy Serkis) is homicide waiting to happen. Nancy (Emily Woof) is an utterly convincing and touching victim of the world she finds herself in. Her murder realizes all the violence which made it one of Dickens's favourite scenes. Monks (Marc Warren) was a towering creation. Mr Brownlow (Michael Kitchen) was a do-gooder with plenty of good to do in this version, as the dramatist upholstered this dimension of the novel to good effect. The cast was strong in its females-Mrs Mann (Julie Walters), Elizabeth Leeford (Lindsay Duncan), Mrs Bedwin (Annette Crosbie) turned in performances of seamless excellence. Two young performances are outstanding-Oliver (Sam Smith) and the Dodger are much more than adequate.

The three worlds-workhouse, (filmed at Alston in Cumbria); the Brownlow household (Nether Winchenden House, Buckinghamshire, and around the Chilterns, and the London scenes in King's Bench Walk and Middle Temple); and Fagin's London (filmed in the Czech Republic) -- are all solidly presented. The general effect of this production, directed by Renny Rye, is to spread the novel out, seriously altering its pace. Conversely, BBC-1's David Copperfield, which could have benefited from leisurely serialization, was stripped more or less to its essential narrative. In the process we lost not only Mr Mell and Tommy Traddles and much of Micawber's volubility but also the novel's sense of perspective.

David Copperfield, has a vastly better constructed plot, but an illusive tone which is very hard to translate to screen. BBC-1's Christmas Copperfield was a joint effort by BBC drama and Light Entertainment departments and lost the work's sombre dimension. David CopperfieldThe original title was: The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences, and Observations of David Copperfield the Younger, of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to be published on any account. There are some interesting clues here. In the life-and-adventures-and-opinions there is a distinct an echo of Tristram Shandy. Dickens seemed to be reverting to his beloved 18th models, but additionally there is the interesting reference to autobiographical elements which were to be kept secret-as of course they were to most of his readers. The darker parts of the story were only known to Dickens himself, Forster and very few others.

The autobiographical tone is established by the celebrated opening words: 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages will show....' This is indeed the nub of the problem, for as with Dickens's beloved Smollett, the eponymous hero is a bland, often empty central figure, surrounded by raving grotesques and eccentrics. Claran McMenamin did what he could, but the void remained. This production had good moments of brutality and melodrama-young David's thrashing at the hands of Murdstone (the magnificent Trevor Eve) convincingly filmed from a young David's viewpoint, the bottle factory in all its grimness, the hideous Creakle (Ian McKellen) and the mortal storm which drowns Ham (James Thornton) and Steerforth (Oliver Milburn) and achieved much of the novel's grotesque comicality. We were blessed with an utterly convincing Mr Dick (Ian McNiece), Aunt Betsy (Maggie Smith) and Dan'l Peggotty (Alun Armstrong). Pauline Quirke was well cast as Peggotty. None of these roles is easy to bring off, but these were vintage performances. Dora (Joanna Page) was silly enough, but scarcely erotic-David supposed to be besotted with her. Agnes (Amanda Ryan) was a shade too earnest. Micawber (Bob Hoskins) was a consistently interesting creation, but cut back as it was, this Micawber lacked not only his essential Johnsonian prolixity, but also that rhapsodic rhetorical wool-gathering which Dickens may well have caught from his early reading of Sterne. This toning down of Micawber's resourceful eloquence was more to be missed than such other details as the lack of his characteristic eye-glass and bald pate. Nicholas Lyndhurst did some good things with Uriah Heep, but will not wholly erase memories of Martin Jarvis. I think we could to better effect have lost such cameo star turns as Dawn French's Mrs Crupp and Paul Whitehouse's pawnbroker and used the space to fill out Micawber. Mrs Gummidge (Patsy Byrne) was surely too well fed.

Because this production conflated the novel, the tone was altered. David Copperfield is deceptive. Beneath the blissful innocence of its finale, and the rooks cawing round the old cathedral at Canterbury, there is a deep, disturbing psychological quality which lingers in the imagination. The scenes of Murdstone's barbarities are haunting, and his insanely reasonable arithmetic problems have a startlingly surreal quality. Equally dreamlike are the sunny innocent moments of retreat, the love and comfort of Peggotty, the stay in the boat at Yarmouth. But the hero has to grow up and face the world. He makes some catastrophic errors of judgement (Steerforth, Dora) and has to endure the pain of maturing, but after the storm he drifts serenely into harbour. With its deployment of the several threads of time, memory, chance and fortune, the past, the present and the future, this is a very revealing novel of middle-period Dickens. He described David Copperfield as 'written memory'. Here he is a successful and established writer, looking back into his past: 'I think the memory of most of us can go further back into such times than many of us suppose...' (Chapter 2) Later he writes: '.... The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine... had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the opportunities wasted...' (Chapter 42)

One of the significant qualities of David Copperfield is in the perspective of its narrative, that sense of looking back over a past life which seems to have brought personal success, yet with the vision tinged with sorrow. Some of this might well result from the fact that the basic narrative tense of television is present continuous, whereas in narrative prose fiction we have the omnipresent authorial voice dwelling simultaneously in the present and the past. The same problem is posed in dramatizing Great Expectations, Dickens only other first person narrative novel. In David Copperfield, writing of his mother's funeral, he says: 'All this, I say, is yesterday's event. Events of later date have floated from me to the shore, where all forgotten things will reappear, but this stands like a high rock in the ocean'. Memory, in Copperfield is not to be tamed. It is a wild and wilful agent which delights and disturbs as it waywardly decides. Like Scrooge, David does not recall the past, but sees it done, it happens again before him. He is in the scene with his former self. There is a pervading sense of what might have been, a searing awareness of chance in life-the friend not met, the street not turned up, the decision not made -- that the tormenting if-only, subjunctive past.

Many of the qualities are lacking in this new version directed by Simon Curtis. There is some use narrative voice over (by the admirable Tom Wilkinson) but much of the melancholy, that sense of aspects of life unfulfilled, has gone. BBC-1's David Copperfield had a consistently bright surface quality. The sun was always shining, the flowers were out, the trees were leafy, skies were blue, joy was just around the corner as events crowded past one another as the narrative unfolded. There was ne'er a backward glance. Odd really, for New Year and Millennium would have been such a good time to look back, as well as forward.

Henry James commented, when one of his novels failed on the stage, that you can't make a sow's ear out of a silk purse. There should be an award for rotten dramatizations of classic novels-the Sow's Ear Award. Neither of these dramatizations would even be a runner up. But there are warning signs.

Robert Giddings
Bournemouth University

Published in The Dickensian