After a bit of a gap I return to my A-Z of my favourite writers. I’m now at D and Charles Dickens. One of the most famous writers in the English language. Though how many people actually read his novels would be interesting to know. While I was at secondary school we were given a set novel to read each year, or was it each term? Anyway, the works of Dickens featured prominently on this list. At that time I was not much into reading and struggled to finish these books. I do remember that Great Expectations was one that I did manage to read. Though whether I enjoyed it much I cannot say
Dickens is of course a master of storytelling and of regaling us with wonderful and unforgettable characters. For this reason his works have become a staple of the film industry. The big screen has seen many great adaptations, while for decades a TV version has been an almost annual event. I suspect most people are more familiar with these TV and film versions than with the original books. I certainly am. I have only ever read a few of his novels, but have enjoyed almost all of the TV adaptations. Dickens was such a prolific writer that it would be impossible to do justice to his work in one post. So I limit myself to a few of my most vivid memories of Dickens’ work.
My favourite is undoubtedly Nicholas Nickleby. I first came across this wonderful novel in the stage version produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. This was shown on Channel 4 in 1982 or 1983 and I just loved it. It featured an imaginative stage setting and was enlivened by some singing and dancing. Roger Rees played Nicholas, Emily Richard his sister and John Woodvine the evil uncle. It is now available as a three disc DVD set, which I now have. After the first showing on TV, I then managed to get a hold of the book and read the whole thing. It is a very long book, but well worth reading. It has all the hallmark Dickens features – great stories and fascinating characters from all walks of life.
I am also a fan of The Pickwick Papers, which I read at about the same time as I read Nicholas Nickleby. This was Dickens’ first published novel and appeared as did all of his work in monthly serial form. The Pickwick Papers is basically a loosely related sequence of very amusing comic stories. Already we can see Dickens’ mastery in creating and embellishing his rich array of characters. The late Harry Secombe starred in a musical version of this novel, while the BBC turned it into the almost obligatory serial.
Most of Dickens’ novels are much more serious than the above two. Many are indeed very dark and gloomy descriptions of life in the first half of the 19th century. Many of these have been turned into cinema or TV productions and I end with a couple of these. Bleak House is one of the many novels I have not as yet read. But it was turned into a wonderful BBC serial in 2005. It was unusual in that apart from the first episode of one hour the rest of the series was shown in 30 minute episodes. This worked very well. However the strength of the production lies in the cast which is a veritable who’s who of British acting. Denis Lawson is majestic as the elder Jarndyce trying to fathom a way through the seemingly never ending litigation process over a disputed will. The cast is also noticeable for the appearance of a young Carey Mulligan in her first major role as Ada Clare, and for an unforgettable performance by Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. A gently paced production full of ups and downs for the key characters. I may even get round to reading this one.
I started with Great Expectations, so it is only proper to end with this masterpiece. Last year BBC got round to filming yet another version of this novel and what a revelation it was too. Unlike Bleak House this reverted to the one hour format for TV, but compressed the novel into just three episodes. Despite this, the production was very effective and brought out the darkness and despair that is a feature of the novel. Though it included some well kent faces from the usual suspects of British TV drama, it featured two relative newcomers in Douglas Booth as Pip and Vanessa Kirby as Estella. However the undoubted star of the show was once again Gillian Anderson who puts in a terrific and rather different interpretation of the jilted Miss Haversham.
All these versions are available on DVD, so if you haven’t seen them yet, then I urge you to get hold of a version as soon as possible.