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Artillery Row

What the Dickens

Spin-offs are all very well, but can’t we have the real thing?

I was surprised to discover that there has been a new BBC TV series based on Oliver Twist. Today, the book has Problematic status, not least because of the innate anti-semitism within Dickens’ presentation of the villainous character of Fagin, which only the most committed Corbynista would regard as unremarkable. Likewise, Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation Oliver! has rendered the book’s often gritty and disturbing treatment of sexual abuse and poverty milquetoast, amidst all of its “food glorious food” and “oom-pah-pah”-ing. One now thinks of Victorian urchins popping up from chimneys, rather than the giddy horror of the murder of the prostitute (or, as we now say, “sex worker”) Nancy by her lover-cum-pimp Bill Sikes.

A new family-friendly series, Dodger, has sauntered jovially onto our screens

But undaunted producers and writers can come up with new twists on old warhorses, and so there is now a new family-friendly series, Dodger, that has sauntered jovially onto our screens. It does not occupy the prestigious Sunday evening slot that is usually reserved for period adaptations, but instead is showing on the CBBC channel at 5:30 p.m. It features the respected screen and stage actor Christopher Eccleston as Fagin, and the makers have said of him that he is “more interesting, sympathetic and funny … like a Robin Hood character”. His sociopathic tendencies are explained by his having been the victim of an antisemitic attack as a younger man.

Dodger’s creators Lucy Montgomery and Rhys Thomas themselves comedians who also appear in the show have stated that the show was not merely inspired by Dickens. Instead they have sought to use the period to illuminate contemporary issues, whether it’s food banks and Marcus Rashford’s interventions on the subject or the exploitation of children by drug gangs. As Montgomery says, in Victorian times, “the food bank was the local market and what could you nick”. He suggests that Dodger is “like the 1830s version of [county lines]”. The idea behind the show is to present the desperation of the impoverished as a source of both social comment and, when called for, thigh-slapping comedy. As Thomas says, “If Dickens was around I don’t know what he’d think of it; hopefully he’d like it and think it’s quite funny it’s in the spirit of the writing.”

The reception has so far been positive the Telegraph called it “cosy, conversation-provoking family fare” and so it may well be a significant success. Whether viewers would prefer to see a “straight” adaptation of Oliver Twist on television next or are happy with this novel twist on the well-worn story, Dodger follows in the footsteps of several other unusual spins on Dickens. There was Armando Iannucci’s excellent, colour-blind adaptation of David Copperfield and Tony Marchant’s ambitious 2015 series Dickensian, which attempted to depict a world in which many of Dickens’ major characters interacted with one another. Perhaps inevitably, it descended into incoherence and was cancelled after one series.

It is generally the darkness in humanity that interests Dickens

It has often, lazily, been suggested that “if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing blockbuster films”. (Actually, I think he’d be a grumpy showrunner of hugely successful long-form television drama, but that’s another issue.) The comparative failure of Marchant’s show indicated that efforts to turn Dickens’ universe into a kind of Victorian-set Eastenders is a step too far, which means that we are more likely to see relatively low-budget programmes like Dodger in the future than either world-building crossover series or conventional adaptations of Dickens’ work.

The last major television series based on one of his novels was Stephen Knight’s barking mad 2019 version of A Christmas Carol, complete with unexpected nudity and vigorous swearing after all, nothing is as festive as Ebenezer Scrooge saying “fuck”. Other than that, faithful versions of his unfinished book The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Great Expectations were last seen a decade ago. There was a brief period before that when Dickens’ novels were adapted with the gusto that they deserved: award-winning versions of Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and (naturally) Oliver Twist appeared on television, featuring the starry likes of Gillian Anderson, David Morrissey and Tom Hardy. But these days now seem to be behind us. You can whistle for new versions of Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers or bizarrely, given how dramatic it is A Tale of Two Cities. 

Dickens is held in curiously mixed regard today. I grew up being told that he was the second greatest English writer after Shakespeare, but for the last two decades this orthodoxy seems to no longer hold true. His appalling treatment of his wife Catherine, who he tried to institutionalise, has led to the age-old image of a jolly, good-spirited figure being gradually replaced by our understanding that he was a crueller, darker man than the caricatures suggest.

Commissioners look at Dickens and see him as too male, too white

But then anyone who has bothered to read his books will have known that it is generally the darkness in humanity that interests Dickens, rather than the “cor-blimey-me-guvnor” knockabout. Whether it’s Fagin facing death in the condemned cell, the grimly ambitious Jonas Chuzzlewit’s descent into murder or the psychologically acute portrayal of Our Mutual Friend’s Bradley Headstone respectable schoolmaster by day, Iago-esque jealous schemer by night there is remarkable richness and complexity in his characters, which in turn has made for fascinating parts for fine actors to play.

One of the many perceptive things about Iannucci’s film of David Copperfield is the way in which it showed, clearly and sympathetically, that the minor character of Mr Dick, obsessed with the “trouble” of Charles I, is not merely a jovial eccentric, but obviously an undiagnosed sufferer of manic depression. As portrayed by Hugh Laurie, who has talked publicly of his own decade-long struggles with clinical depression, it managed to bring rich contemporary resonance to something that, in less impressive hands, might have been merely a museum piece.

So we have to be grateful that Dodger exists, because it continues conversations that have been going on since its progenitor was first published in 1838. Is the jovial Mr Brownlow simply the good-hearted benefactor he appears to be, or does he have more nefarious intentions towards the young orphan Oliver? For all the brouhaha about racial abuse towards Fagin, can it not also be acknowledged that a single man in charge of a roomful of boys is always going to attract a certain level of disapproving comment, both then and now?

These are debates of both literary and social significance. Perhaps Dodger will bring them to a new audience who will, indeed, ask for more in the form of another faithful adaptation of the novel. But I fear that commissioners look at Dickens and see him as too male (and toxically male, at that), too heterosexual and too white, and seek other subjects for adaptation. This ignores the deep complexity of one of literature’s most perfectly executed worlds. By all means, let’s have Dodger, Dickensian, a woke Christmas Carol and the like. Then let’s have brilliantly written, superbly acted and faithful versions of one of the great Victorian canons, too, made relevant by sheer brio. That would be entirely the best of times, rather than the worst of times.

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