Thursday, July 21, 2011

In praise of Bleak House

I spent last week watching the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House. You may recall that it was shown in 30-minute episodes the early evening just after EastEnders, rather than on Sunday afternoons, and was widely and justifiably praised at the time.

But it is important to appreciate why it worked so well. It was not, as the person writing the blurb on the box seemed to think, that the adapters rescued the story from Dickens' sentimentality. It was that by employing something close to a soap opera format they stripped away some of the faulty preconceptions that have gathered around our greatest novelist in the past 150 years and recaptured the novel's original spirit.

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Phil Davis as Smallweed, Tomothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock and Johnny Vegas as Krook outstanding.

It is hard to find anything to grumble about. It was great to have Warren Clarke in the cast, but perhaps he was made to sound and look too much like his enemy Dedlock. And, as the commentary points out, their little Jo the crossing-sweeper radiated good health even when he was meant to be dying. That's the welfare state and popular affluence for you. It is not a problem David Lean faced in 1948.

That commentary is a disappointment in that it appears on only three of the fifteen episodes, but then the BBC seems to have a habit of advertising commentaries on DVDs that turn out not to cover all the discs. Still, it is very good as far as it goes and amusing in a couple of places, where the director hymns the brilliance of Andrew Davies, only to be told that the line she loves was written by Dickens.

The greatest praise I can give this adaptation (the BBC's website for it is still up) is that it has made me want to read the novel again. Angry. Funny. Satirical. Warm hearted. Politically astute. There are few to match it in the English language.

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