Hard Times for Dickens

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER PATERSON

Dickens: Secrets (BBC2); The Forsyte Saga (ITV1)

AS THE author of the most exhaustive, definitive and brilliant biography of Charles Dickens yet written, Peter Ackroyd was the obvious choice to present the new three-part dramatised life of the great novelist that started on Saturday night.

It is also fitting that Mr Ackroyd should himself look like a character from Dickens - short and portly like Mr Pickwick, and as knowledgeable about the alleys and byways of London as the Artful Dodger.

But then, there are few among us who do not, in one way or another, resemble a character from Dickens - there are so many to choose from.

Since Dickens is Mr Ackroyd's obsession, it was not surprising that he began the series with a resounding declaration to the effect that his man was the all-time greatest novelist in the English language. But not everyone would have agreed.

An actor playing William Makepeace Thackeray was wheeled on to decry his contemporary and rival - 'Very comic,' was his sarcastic comment on The Pickwick Papers.

'Very entertaining. It's what I call the cockney school of fiction.' W.

Somerset Maugham complained that Dickens's novels were 'scarcely adult' in comparison with those of George Eliot or the French and Russian 19th-century novelists in English translation.

Anthony Burgess talked of reading Dickens with a mixed sense of nostalgia and distaste, and Kingsley Amis of being 'bounced between violent admiration and violent distaste'.

George Orwell, who in a sense inherited Dickens's social conscience, criticised him for ' attacking everybody and antagonising nobody'.

What Ackroyd is up against is that despite some extremely accomplished film and TV adaptations of Dickens - I would rate the BBC's production of Our Mutual Friend as one of the very finest, though it failed to pull in the viewers - his popularity and reputation among the British public have long been in steady decline.

But if anyone can reverse that trend, it is Ackroyd and his director, Chris Granlund.

Last night's energetic opening episode was as thrilling as any of Dickens's own works, starting - sadly topical, this - with the train crash in which the author was involved in 1865, where ten people lost their lives and a further 60 were seriously injured.

DICKENS was carrying the manuscript of an instalment of Our Mutual Friend - which was then being serialised in a magazine - and returned to the wreckage to recover it, after helping the injured.

'Charles Dickens never missed a deadline,' admiringly observed former journalist Ackroyd. …