Magazine article The Spectator

Dickensian Gloom

Magazine article The Spectator

Dickensian Gloom

Article excerpt

The BBC is presenting Bleak House (BBC1, Thursday, Friday) as if it were a soap opera. That's nonsense, of course, since a great novel leads to a resolution, an entwining of the characters and the plot, whereas a soap opera is a process of unravelling. Or, if you like, an Escher drawing in which the steps lead ever upwards towards the place where you started. An episode of a classic serial should make you feel that something important has happened or that something is revealed; an episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders is meant to make you sense that, whatever the plot, everything remains the same. A novel leads to an ending, a soap opera to a never-ending.

But it's not worth bothering about what, I suppose, is just a publicity gimmick to make fans of The Bill flip over for at least three minutes. The achievement of Bleak House is that Andrew Davies has written the adaptation in the vernacular of the time. I don't know who persuaded him -- the producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, perhaps -- but they've done a fine job. To hear a Davies script in which no Austen heroine remarks 'Oi, leave it aht!' is a delight, and there is much joy in heaven at one who repenteth.

Nor has sex been injected, like saltwater into cheap bacon. No, 'Mr Tulkinghorn, is that a writ of attainder in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?' 'Lady Dedlock, I am invariably most pleased to see you. . .' That may come, but not in the first week.

What we do get is some extraordinary camerawork. Ian Adrian must get much of the credit, but this sort of effect involves a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is a prison, and the interiors look like jails. Half faces are illuminated in the surrounding gloom.

Sometimes you have to peer at the screen as if it were an unlit cellar. Daylight is an unwelcome stranger. Even the street scenes look as if they are set in prison corridors; the characters are pale and slow, like undernourished ghosts.

In the rare scenes outdoors, the sun has been washed out (in the second episode, several people are gathered in the garden of Bleak House itself and though you could see strong shadows, the actors looked cold and bleached). Characters are filmed through branches, gate posts and palings, a constant reminder that, even in the open air, they are still imprisoned.

If I have a small complaint it is the number of famous faces among the cast. …

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