Monday, 28 May 2012


“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” - William Shakespeare 

As the weather last Saturday was wintry and not conducive to much activity outside the house, we sat and watched an excellent BBC adaptation of one of the most famous of Dickens’ novels for TV. It was the Justin Chadwick and Susanna White mini series of 2005, “Bleak House” which was produced by a team that has quite a good track record for period dramas. This version did not disappoint, in fact it was engaging and true to the original with excellent screenplay and wonderful acting. It starred Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Denis Lawson and Carey Mulligan.

The plot centres on the never-ending courtroom litigation of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, the dispute being over different versions of a will that will not allow claimants of the Jarndyce fortune to take possession of it. However, as well as the courtroom scenes (of which there are few, come to think of it – but enough to demonstrate the grossly inefficient, time wasting, costly and exasperating system of 19th century justice), there is plenty else to keep the viewer enthralled: Romance, murder mystery, human frailty, friendship, corruption, guilty secrets and greed. It is a rich tapestry of incident and characterisation, philosophy and social commentary, as well as being a biting satire of a corrupt and wasteful legal system.

The casting is ideal for this adaptation, with Charles Dance as the lawyer Tulkinghorn, being the personification of evil and corruption. Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, manages a coolly restrained but intense performance, doing justice to the fragile and enigmatic character she portrays. Anna Maxwell Martin, a fresh young face turns in one of the top central performances, while the beautiful and innocent Ada is portrayed to great effect by Carey Mulligan. As with any Dickens novel there are a host of richly characterised eccentrics with Pauline Collins as Miss Flite stealing a few scenes, Johnny Vegas excelling as the drunken Krook and Philip Davis as relishing the role of Smallweed and Burn Gorman being an effective Guppy. However, there was no trace of overacting, so easy a trap to fall into with Dickensan dramas.

The production values are very high and the period atmosphere has a rich ambience and visual authenticity. There is a sumptuousness running right through the series, with sets, costumes and hairdos looking like the real thing. I found fascinating the genuine look of grime on the hands of many of the characters (where it was called for) complete with ink stains, broken fingernails and callouses. The dark and dreary depiction of some of the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods that Dickens was deploring adds to the genuineness of the production, where one can see history books being brought to life with the rich veneer of the Victorian age being stripped to reveal the rotten core of the British Empire’s capital city.

One small irksome feature of the production was the gimmicky camera work and “whooshing” noises accompanying some scene changes. They weren’t features too distracting on first viewing, but I know if I watch this program again, they will prove to be quite annoying. Still, the pros are way too many and neutralise these few cons. We recommend this to anyone who enjoys intelligent, adult drama. It may be a “Victorian soap opera” (according to a few of its detractors, however, it is a “soap opera” of quality and in which art has been injected.

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