Review by Robert Giddings
Dramatized by Martyn Edward Hesford, ITV April 2001
Nicholas Nickleby has usually been fortunate in television. The 1968 dramatization gave us the likable Nicholas of Martin Jarvis (with a charming head of naturally curly hair) and the definitive Newman Noggs of Gordon Gostelow. In 1977 we had a smooth but charming Nicholas in Nigel Havers and a wonderfully gravel voiced Derek Godfrey as Uncle Ralph. Although not strictly speaking dramatized for television, Channel Four gave us the highly original David Edgar/Royal Shakespeare Company's version in 1982. The work has an important place in Dickens's development as an artist. As John Forster recorded, as its serialisation got underway in 1838, Dickens "... began to have his place as a writer conceded to him ... he ceased to be regarded as a mere phenomenon or marvel of fortune...." Nevertheless, Dickens is a phenomenon and a marvel. For all its complex plotting and graded climaxes, Nickleby is still brimming with his characteristic exuberance and grotesque comicality. No dramatization should muffle that. This production had its flaws, but it had plenty of that unique Dickensian electricity.
As far as plot goes, Nicholas Nickleby echoes the novelist's beloved Smollett. Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle are the models for the story of a young naive hero, thrown into life to find his own way. As he learns, so we learn. Into this pliable mould Dickens poured his bountiful invention, incorporating a rich mixture of comedy and melodrama-Yorkshire schools, provincial theatre, life in the city, life in the country, dissolute aristocracy, the shabby genteel, grinding poverty, generous capitalism, usury and greed, the wicked and the saintly. All human life is there-nigh on eight hundred pages of it. Obviously, in four hours of TV drama, pruning shades into butchery. The trick lies in deceptive cutting, disguising reduction. Martyn Edward Hesford has done that. He has done more. Nicholas originally held the whole farrago together, finally ringing down the curtain. But he's a flat unconvincing character. Here the entire focus is on Uncle Ralph, the centre of a maelstrom of intrigues, which swirl round all the characters, connecting all the characters.
Charles Dance assumes this role with chilling, reptilian authority. He's backed up by a fine gang of rogues-a zestful, demonic Squeers (Gregor Fisher), a splendid Arthur Gride, relishing his own wickedness in a truly Dickensian manner (Frank Mills) and a bragging Mulberry Hawk (Dominic West). The good guys, for once, were convincing. We had a jolly pair of Cheerybles (J.J.Feild and Jonathan Coy) and a zany Newman Noggs (George Innes). Kate (Sophia Myles) had more presence than Nicholas (James D'Arcy) but Madeline Bray (Katherine Holme) was a sweet but by no means saccharine young lady. Smike (Lee Ingleby) was a very interesting creation, and deftly steered the difficult course between pathos and mawkishness. Liz Smith, always a joy to see, did Peg Sliderskew full credit. Diana Kent did what she could with what was left her in Mrs Nickleby. This draws attention to the weakness such dramatization renders inevitable. The focus on Ralph's intrigues and their latent melodrama, results in the loss of that comic afflatus so typical of the Immortal. Mrs Nickleby showed none of that free ranging stream of irrelevance which is her hallmark. There was enough left for Newman Noggs to counter balance Ralph's dastardly doings, but his surreal monologues and defiant posturings were gone. Mantalini ( who has some of finest dotty lines Dickens ever wrote) was here a man of few words. Others were ditched entirely-no Kenwigses, Mrs Wititterley, Linkinwater.
The direction, by Stephen Whittaker, swept things along. Scene followed scene, and sequences flashed by as the drama was taken at a good rattling pace, appropriate to the high days of the stage coach. But this NYPD/Cops quality was achieved at some stylistic cost. Climaxes might have been better prepared, relationships better established and some fine dialogued preserved-and much else. For example the full horrors of Squeers's academy scarce had time to reveal themselves. Nicholas's first morning there, with Squeers dealing with the boys' mail is important narrative material. No sooner were we there, than we were off to the Vincent Crummles Experience.
This production looked good. Money was not wasted in elaborate attempts at "authentic" recreations of some media imagined Victorian historical past, nor in expensive pretty locations. But visually this was an impressive production. London interiors decayed and only held together with cobwebs, chilling Yorkshire locations and plenty of rotten weather bodied forth the ethical unwholesomeness dramatically revealed. The rural retreat at Bow was not unconvincingly prettified. The fashion to update Dickens to modern times was resisted. Nothing dates as rapidly as updating. These works speak across the years with the authoritative power of timeless myth and the mystifying conviction of dream. Indeed, one forgave Arthur Gride's anachronistic comic version of the wedding chorus from Lohengrin (1850) as well as Newman Noggs's Mexican bandit's mustache.
There is one basic question to be answered in dramatizing a classic novel. What purpose is to be served? Are we delivering a literary masterpiece to the screen? Or are we making a TV drama? Too earnest an attempt in the former often fails to bring classics to life, merely renders them lying in state. With the latter, too rashly cutting free from literary bondage may result in cheapness and vulgarity. But here, I think, with just a few misgivings, I'd say the balance was about right. As in all true drama what was important was character, relationship and motive. And true to the tradition of all worthwhile storytelling was the importance of hope-hope that good will eventually prevail, even against the odds. And it gave us some good laughs.
However, I lament the loss of the Gentleman in Small Clothes:
"She is come! .... Cormoran and Blunderbore! She is come! All the wealth I have is hers is she will take me for her slave. Where are grace and beauty and blandishments like those? In the Empress of Madagascar? No. In the Queen of Diamonds? No. In Mrs Rowland, who every morning bathes in Kalydor for nothing? No. Melt all these down into one, with the three Graces, the nine Muses, and fourteen biscuit-makers' daughters from Oxford-street, and make a woman half as lovely. Pho! I defy you!"
No. They just don't write dialogue like that anymore.Robert Giddings
Published in The Dickensian