This past January at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was talking with a tech publicist I quite like, Heather Delaney of the firm Dynamo PR. It's based in England, as is Heather, not shockingly -- although she's from the U.S.. (Actually, for those of you keeping score, that more properly should be "was based," since she's back now, in charge of opening up an office for Dynamo in San Francisco. Stop in and say, 'hi,' and you'll perhaps get a scone and clotted cream, along with a beautifully-wrapped gift loaf of sourdough bread to take home.)
Chatting away on all manner of topics, not even necessarily tech, she mentioned a BBC television series she thought I might like. That's because she was aware of my novella, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, which is a parody of the tale in which I interweave a couple dozen characters from other Dickens novels. The British series was titled, Dickensian, which was reason enough for her to bring it up. But the main reason she thought of mentioning it is because the fun hook of the show is that the story takes place in one particular neighborhood of 19th century London...which is inhabited by several dozen characters from Dickens novels!
Needless-to-say, I was intrigued, but tracking it down was another matter. The 20-episode series, which each run a half-hour (except for the longer finale) is not available on Netflix, at least currently, and for some reason it's not yet been shown on BBC America. In fairness, it's quite new -- it aired last year and finished its run only in February, so perhaps it will end up in these parts eventually. (If you have a multi-region DVD player, however, the DVD can be ordered by Amazon UK here.) Happily, though, thanks to a high-techie friend with access to such things, he was able to find and download all 20 episodes from a British site online and burn them to several DVDs for me.
I finally finished watching them last week, and...well, the series was spectacular. One of my favorite things I've seen on TV, period. Ever. Unfortunately, the BBC announced in April that they wouldn't be renewing the show, so that one season is it. My understanding is that Dickensian was respectably popular, but I suspect it was fairly expensive to make -- the period sets, costumes and attention to detail are meticulous and wonderful, and the cast is very large. So it might have done well, but just not well-enough to justify the expense and continue. At least it told a closed-ended story, so there's no unresolved cliffhanger. The tale comes full-circle.
I'm going to write here about why I loved the show so much, but it's a bit odd doing so because most people reading this might not have a chance to ever see it. My hope though is that at some point it will indeed be on DVD and then Netflix, and even BBC America. But even if not, it was simply too wonderful not to give it its due. And its full due begins with high-praise to Tony Jordan who created the show wrote half the episodes. He was the preeminent writer on the exceedingly long-running British soap opera EastEnders for almost 20 years, and among his many other works co-created the series Life on Mars, which was adapted as a U.S. series which ran here for two seasons.
But Dickensian I suspect, is his masterpiece.
I knew when I sat down to watch that there was a murder mystery involved, but that's all I knew about the show. About 10-15 minutes into the first episode, though, I started laughing because I was absolutely certain I knew who the victim would be. And if my thought was right (which I was sure it was), it was hilariously clever. I'm going to tell you, which isn't really giving anything much away, since the character dies about 20 minutes into this first episode of a 10-hour series. But if you really, truly don't want to know, just skip the next paragraph. But honestly, knowing may make you even more intrigued to watch it, if you get the chance.
Knowing that this was based on Dickens, I was trying to figure out who was going to bite the dust. I didn't think it could be a major character, since I wasn't aware of any major Dickens character who died in a mysterious way that would fit here. But then I didn't think it really would likely be a minor character, since that probably wouldn't be interesting for the audience to care as much whodunnit. Certainly it possibly could be a non-Dickens character, but that would seem to go against the theme of the series. So, hmm, who could it be? The story, like a good Dickens tale, of course starts on Christmas Eve. And as the characters were being introduced and storylines set up, I kept trying to look for clues about who we might not see much longer. And that's when I started to laugh. Because...Christmas Eve? I knew a Dickens character who died on Christmas Eve! It's the whole point that sets up A Christmas Carol. "Seven years ago this very night" is when Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley had died! Indeed, that's what brings the ghost of Marley to visit Scrooge on the anniversary of his death. So, I was absolutely sure that that's who the victim would be. And so it was! The premise of the show, therefore, is to find out who killed him.
Though the core premise of the series is to find the killer, Dickensian is really about so much more. Because there are other stories interwoven through it all, some of which touch on the murder mystery, and others that dance by but stand on their own.
Much of the early fun of Dickensian is the introduction of the characters -- some directly, but some in a whimsical roundabout way. For instance, in what is probably the major dramatic storyline (and not related to the murder mystery), we come upon a brother and sister whose father has just passed away, and the young man, Arthur, is gut-wrenchingly livid that his sister has inherited most of the estate and he only gets a much smaller portion, plus a salary from the family brewery. For much of the episode, we only know the siblings as Arthur and Amelia. And then only later, very offhandedly, the young man is quietly referred to by an acquaintance in a good-naturedly way, easy to slip by, along the lines of, "Come now, Havisham, what do you say?" And that's when you realize that his sister, Amelia, is...Miss Havisham, here the young woman who will grow to be Dickens' memorable centerpiece of Great Expectations. And the storyline with them is the back-tale of how this charming young lady came to be that famous, half-crazed, torn character we meet in the novel.
To be very clear, you don't have to know Dickens at all to enjoy Dickensian. The stories and writing and acting and production values are all too good. It's a wonderful murder mystery, but it's also a separately wonderful and very intriguing drama about a young woman at the center of a profound deceit, and there's another wonderful family drama, as well, of a conflict when the patriarch hits hard times. And other terrific tales, as well.
As for that family drama, it involves another of the great-fun introductions. The family is the Barbarys, whose name meant nothing to me, despite having read all the Dickens novels. The father, Edward, has learned that his fortune in great trouble -- and has to borrow money. Needless-to-say, the lender is none other than Ebenezer Scrooge, of course! But when Barbary is unable to pay it back, he's thrown in debtors prison. His daughters Frances and Honoria have to figure out how to resolve this dire situation. Several, very interesting episodes later, it all eventually become clear what this story actually is. That's when the older sister finds that the elderly nobleman she's interested in is not at all interested in her, but rather in her younger, pretty sister Honoria -- who is herself deeply in love with a young dashing soldier, soon to hopefully be her fiance. But the older, devious sister connives to marry off her sister to the nobleman in order to bring a fortune into the family. Which is how she manipulates things with Sir Leicester Dedlock. And...wait -- "Sir Dedlock"??!! When you hear the name, that's when a good Dickens fan realizes that this means....yes, young Honoria is who will later become -- Lady Dedlock! The mysterious, distant, withdrawn woman at the heart of Bleak House. And so here we get the back story to that, But even without knowing any of this, it's a terrific, moving tale on its own.
And the way the lives in Dickensian work, Honoria Barbary from Bleak House and Amelia Havisham of Great Expectations here are best friends. Which is one of the ways that characters and stories overlap.
Among the many other characters whose stories cross paths in Dickensian include Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, the Artful Dodger and Mr. and Mrs. Bumble from Oliver Twist. (Though the storyline with the Bumbles is completely separate for the other Oliver Twist plotline, which crosses paths with Ebenezer Scrooge, who Fagin naturally wants to partner with.) Bob Cratchit, his good wife Martha, Tiny Tim and the children are here from A Christmas Carol...as well as, of course Jacob Marley, and the aforementioned Scrooge. There's also Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Show (who is introduced hilariously if one knows that story -- she infamously dies in the novel, in perhaps Dickens' most mawkishly maudlin passage, and when we first meet her in the series, she's of course on her deathbed -- but here recovers.) And as it happens, one of the Cratchit boys is infatuated with her, and courts the young girl. And there are a great many lesser-known characters, some of whose names I did recognize, but some I didn't -- though what was fun (and what I recommend if you do get to watch the show) is to track down a character list online and keep it handy like a theater playbill. (There's a good one in Wikipedia.) Characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers and more from Bleak House, Great Expectations and others, like Mrs. Gamp, Jaggers, Miss Biggetywitch, and Mr. Venus (beautifully played by Omad Djalili), a taxidermist from Our Mutual Friend who offers advice and assistance to Inspector Bucket, the detective from Bleak House who here is investigating the murder.
I didn't know most of the actors, but did recognize a few. Peter Firth (who starred on Broadway decades ago as the young boy in Equus) plays Jacob Marley. I also recognized Anton Lesser -- who is in the Masterpiece Mystery series Endeavour as the elderly Chief Superintendent, and played Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall -- is a superb Fagin, bringing wonderful, humanizing levels to the character. But the best-known actor to me was Stephen Rea, who got an Oscar nomination for The Crying Game, with numerous other recognizable credits. He plays Inspector Bucket, a minor though important character in Bleak House, here investigating the murder, using this new technique of "detection" which is looked at askance by his superiors. He's absolutely superb in the series, a quirky master of subtle looks and pointed expressions that he rolls carefully around in his mouth.
Two other actors particularly stood out for me. Ned Dennehy plays Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps today the most now-cliched characters in all of Dickens, and he brings such great depth to him, making Scrooge far more human and rounded than we've come to expect of him -- yet just as cold, cruel and spiteful. And Sophie Rundle is terrific as the lovely and eventually conflicted Honoria Barbary, soon to be Lady Dedlock. This isn't fair to all the other actors in the series because pretty much all of them are gems, including several who are in major plots -- like Tuppence Middleton, so involving as Amelia Havisham, and Tom Weston-Jones who plays the diabolically ingratiating Meriwether Compeyson from Great Expectations. But if I kept naming them all, it would just be a long list.
For the most part, the storylines are riveting and fascinating -- whether or not you know Dickens. A couple slightly misfire, most notably the sub-plot with the Bumbles trying to better themselves. It seems largely for comic relief, and it's definitely fun but comes across as too separate from the rest of the stories. There also is a comic subplot with Miss Gamp and her lady friends which centers on the tavern and is lively, but gets a little repetitious. But the writing for these and throughout the series is so smart, so true to Dickens, so vibrant and accessible that it all comes across as fresh, and the plotting is ethereally good. I have to note here once again Tony Jordan who created the series, and additionally wrote half of the episodes. It's a tremendous achievement and deserves a repeat mention.
The resolution of the murder mystery (don't worry, I won't say who) is very respectably satisfying, which is a difficult trick because you figure that they have to stay pretty true to Dickens. And I'm not aware of any major characters convicted of murder, and a minor character would seem to be unsatisfying here. But the writers came up with a solution that I'd say works fine.
Oddly, I found the final episode that wraps up the show and the storylines the least successful for my taste. It was as richly done as the others, and is very good. In part, though, my reaction is because the murder investigation is wrapped up in the previous episode, so there's none of that in the finale, and almost nothing with Inspector Bucket, my favorite character. Instead they deal with several of the other stories. But, although those stories are great on their own, as I said, it's just that for various reasons I won't get into -- in case people here do see the show -- the finale didn't all pack the punch that for me was the most-satisfying release of everything. What I'll say is that the main stories they focus on in the last episode -- one with Miss Havisham and another Honoria Barbary (to be Lady Dedlock) -- are incredibly dramatic, indeed riveting, but unlike most Dickens novels, which tend to end on abundant good cheer and the hopes of bright futures, these are not those kinds of storylines. So, the ending here is more wistful and moody that you might otherwise get in Dickens. To be clear, the finale was good. Beautifully done and full of emotion. And everything does get resolved. And in a way that you look forward, if not to bright futures for all, at least for some, and all with hope.
One final word, about one thing where it does help to know Dickens. For the entire series, there are hints of lines from the books, but the dialogue is otherwise original, entirely its own. Except for the very end. And I mean, the very end. That's when a little boy is introduced late in the finale, without mention at first of his name, and he weaves his way around for a while alone and homeless. Eventually, this waif, who goes by the name Oliver Twist, runs into the Artful Dodger.. And the Dodger's dialogue, explaining that he's about to introduce his lucky new friend to his "respectable old gentlemen," Fagin, is a long passage that is directly out of the novel, word-for-word.
And with that, as the two head into a tavern, and the door closes behind them, the series ends.
It's just great. And I do so hope Dickensian makes its way to Netflix or BBC America.
Here's the trailer, followed by an extended. Neither does the series justice, the trailer focusing mostly on the murder mystery and Big Dark Drama, and the whole show itself is far more graceful and vibrant, even at times funny. But this trailer is attention-getting. It also gives away the murder victim (as does the following scene), so if you don't want to know, then skip them. But really, there's no reason not to know.
[NOTE: The original trailer I embedded is no longer available. This is the same one, but with Spanish subtitles. But all the dialogue and narration is in English.]
And here is a longer scene. It largely involves the Bumbles, who as I said are relatively minor characters in the series, but the clip gives you a better sense of the quality of the writing and acting. So, for those reasons I think it's worthwhile to include.
[NOTE: Unfortunately this video is no longer available either, and dthe only standalone scene I can find is almost literally the last one in the series, which I'd rather not post, but instead here's a brief "teaser" about one of the upcoming episodes.]
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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