Across the years BBC has consistently looked to the works of Charles Dickens for intelligent, colourful, accessible and popular drama. Dickens novels are ideal for adaptation his writing has a great theatrical and visual quality; his stories are full of humour, drama and emotion and his characters are three-dimensional and exude personality.
This premier collection includes Bleak House - a thrilling murder mystery, Little Dorrit - a saga of rags, riches, romance and cruel twists of fortune, and Oliver Twist - a story about a boy who is born into poverty and misfortune.
I grew up loving the "Oliver!" musical adaptation by director Carol Reed, but other than that and a couple of versions of "A Christmas Carol", I'd never experienced much in the way of Dickens' work, and had been meaning to try more of it, so I was extremely happy to check out this collection. Because I was familiar with the story of Oliver, "Oliver Twist" was the first of the three mini-series in this collection that I watched.
This adaptation of a well known story is a much darker, grittier version than the one I'd grown up with, and I found it thoroughly riveting! Timothy Spall (also known as "Peter Pettigrew / Wormtail" from the "Harry Potter" movies) played a rather effeminate Fagin who seemed somewhat gentler, possibly even kinder, than the original, though still sleazy and out for himself, but weaker and more passive. In fact, he comes across quite similar in personality to his Peter Pettigrew character, and while it was a rather different and somewhat disappointing version of Fagin, with Spall's version, there are times when you almost feel sorry for the Lord of thieves.
"Inception's" Tom Hardy plays a rather chilling role in his portrayal of the villain Bill Sykes yet manages to bring out a different, slightly warmer side than usual when it comes to Sykes' girl Nancy (played this time by Sophie Okonedo who does a fantastic job as the brave loving woman who tries her hardest to do right by Oliver). Adam Arnold is another well picked actor as he plays the cocky, confident Artful Dodger in a way that seems natural and totally believable, along with William Miller who is a rather subdued Oliver... quiet, and watchful with a calm inner strength. Definitely a well picked cast in a mini-series that had me eagerly moving straight onto the next episode as soon as one had finished. My favourite version so far!
"Little Dorrit" was the 2nd series I watched of the three, and one I'd never heard of before. In many ways it reminded me of Virginia Andrews' books (the ones actually written by her, not her ghost writers) with all the deceit, lies, secrecy, intrigue, quiet romance, and drama. The first half of this series was thoroughly enjoyable and captivating, but then around episode 8 characters who were already slightly annoying, like Fanny Dorrit and her brother Tip become even more irritating and snobby as their fortunes change. They are both rather arrogant, childish, demanding and manipulative characters, with Fanny being far more the worst of the pair. Even their father's character changes from this episode onwards as he becomes more like a young child, constantly throwing tantrums when he doesn't get his own way, making what was supposed to be a great opportunity, far more unpleasant for poor Amy Dorrit, who is a lot quieter and meeker in personality (very similar to Esther Summerson in "Bleak House" in fact) than the rest of her strong willed family.
Compared to the rest of the rather colourful cast of characters, both Amy Dorrit (played by Claire Foy) and Arthur Clennam (played by Matthew Macfadyen) were rather weak and drab, which is a shame, considering they were two of the main characters! Another "Harry Potter" cast member makes an appearance in several episodes as well, in a rather small role... Robert Hardy, also known as Harry Potter's Cornelius Fudge, along with the fantastic Andy Serkis (also known as Gollum from "Lord of the Rings") who is in his element and perfectly suited as the bad guy, Rigaud.
The last two episodes thankfully really ramped the pace right back up again, with twists and turns, a rapid string of deaths, confessions, etc, making me really glad I'd kept going instead of giving up after episode 8, like I almost did. "Little Dorrit" is definitely a thoroughly enjoyable, riveting series, except for the quieter paced, slightly dull middle episodes, and well worth curling up with whether you enjoy Dickens' work or not!
After watching the other two series in the Dickens Collection and thoroughly enjoying them, I was extremely disappointed when I started watching "Bleak House" and found it to be much slower, and harder to get into. Unlike the others, this series took a long time to capture my interest, and just seemed to drag on, and on, and on. There were many times through watching it where I almost gave up, it was that dull and slow at the beginning.
There were so many slimy, pompous, creepy, unsavoury characters, (including Mr. Bayham Badger, played by Richard Griffiths, also known as Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter movies), with only a small handful of good ones in amongst the trash. In the middle of everything, is sweet, gentle, loving Esther Summerson, played by Anna Maxwell Martin. At first she doesn't seem like much, rather weak and boring, but after a while you start to see the quiet strength, loyalty and caring personality come through, when even great loss and revelation don't stop her sense of duty. Gillian Anderson (from "X Files" fame) was a great pick for the cold, mysterious Lady Dedlock whose big secret (although kind of predictable) forces her to put walls up between herself and anyone she might possibly care about. Anderson's performance would probably put her as my favourite in this series, followed by Anna Martin's as Esther, Burn Gorman's as the rather weird Guppy, and Alun Armstrong's as Bucket the inspector. Armstrong appears in both Bleak House and Little Dorrit, and both times he plays strong characters who, while they aren't exactly the decent sort, are definitely intriguing and ones to watch.
After an incredibly slow slog through the first disc, I was relieved when in Disc 2, it finally starts to get more interesting as secrets are finally revealed, and I was quickly caught up in what became a rather detailed, twisted plot, finding it rather hard to stop watching for the rest of the series. This was my least favourite of the 3, but definitely glad I stuck with it through the difficult, bland first half and got further into the twists, intrigue, and murders where things certainly got far more interesting.
This wonderful collection of Dickens' well loved stories is a collection that will get pulled out to watch again and again.. it's timeless and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you love Dickens, but quite possibly even if you're not. I've just finished watching all 3, and I already want to start over and watch all 3 again!
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