BookTalk Event Review: Dickensian

BookTalk’s April event marked a slight departure from the usual shape of things. We welcomed Dr Ruth McElroy of the University of South Wales and Director of the Creative Industries Research Institute at USW, and Professor Holly Furneaux of the School of English, Communication and Philosophy to discuss the reimagining of Dickens’ works to the 2015/6 BBC television series, Dickensian. As part of the evening, the first half-hour was taken up with a screening of the first episode of Dickensian, introducing the series to the audience members unfamiliar and reuniting fans with the characters. Following some brief words of introduction from Jamie Castell, we jumped straight into the first episode of Dickensian. When the lights came back up, Holly and Ruth were welcomed back to the front by Jamie.

Holly began by speaking about meeting Tony Jordan while she was consulting on another project. The pair inevitably started chatting about his new project – a then-nascent Dickensian – and when asked if she would like to be involved, Holly’s response was an instant yes! Her job became that of advising on characters, a role Holly laughed at good-naturedly, as she noted that Dickens himself seems to have viewed his characters as portable and ever-fluctuating. Nonetheless, the production team wished to ‘follow the grain of the characters’ as much as possible, so that they would be instantly recognisable, even when removed from their own familiar storylines. The desire to make the characters clearly identifiable as both individuals and part of a whole, both Ruth and Holly felt, translated most clearly into the opening title sequence. A great deal of careful consideration was invested in those crucial introductory moments in attempt to capture the ambiguity of these characters and to suggest from the offset that none of them could be directly pinned down. The decision to have the characters’ many silhouettes then blend into the figure of Dickens himself functioned as an homage to the image popularised after Dickens’ death of the author surrounded by his creations, such as that by Robert W. Buss.

As Dickens is known to have worked closely with his illustrators (of whom Buss was, for a brief period at least, one) and to have had exacting specifications for how he expected his characters to be portrayed, the series designers attempted to engage closely with these visual cues. The series therefore includes several frames that were directly taken from the original illustrations of Dickens’ works, such as Fagin emerging out of the shadows to spear a sausage out of the fire from George Cruickshank’s illustrations from Oliver Twist.

Muppet Cratchits

Moments such as the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner that have become part of the visual history of Dickens were also included, placing the series within the broad cultural heritage that has arisen around the works of Dickens through visual signifiers and key moments. Towards the end of the series, even Oliver Twist’s famous “May I have some more?” made an appearance on screen!

Dickens’ interactions with his own characters continued beyond his close collaborations with his illustrators. Holly noted that he himself gave his characters a new lease of life from that he had originally given them on the page in his own later life, when he took up a secondary career of public readings. She went on to tell the audience there have even been suggestions that Dickens’ own life may have been prematurely cut short by a particularly over-zealous rendition of Bill Sykes murdering Nancy! Meanwhile, Ruth added, if any viewers had noticed similarities between Dickensian’s theme music and that of Sherlock, this was by design, as it was intended to linger in the viewer’s head and keep them coming back.

Ruth and Holly then spoke about how one of the earliest aims of the series was to try and replicate the original serialised experience of Dickens’ readers. There was a common feeling that the serial soap drama comes closest today to recreating that serialised format and the anticipation that would have been associated with waiting for the next week’s instalment. Unfortunately, this goal was scuppered early on by the many problems that arose with the scheduling. Tony Jordan had envisaged Dickensian as being aired bi-weekly, filling in the primetime slot on the evenings when Eastenders wasn’t on. Instead, the programme did not start airing until Boxing Day 2015, a decision Ruth tells us she instinctively thought of as the wrong one. Dickensian was designed to be aired in the run up to Christmas, finishing on Christmas Eve. By beginning it on Boxing Day, it already felt too late, because although it was set in the run up, in real-life, Christmas had already happened!  Scheduling continued to prove problematic for the duration of Dickensian’s run and it never settled into a regular slot. A frequent observation since the cancellation of the series has been that it became lost in scheduling hell and fans never knew when to expect it. As well as the scheduling issues, Ruth suggests a further reason why Dickensian wasn’t recommissioned is due to the rapidity of turnover in television commissioning these days. By the time the question of renewal arose, the people who had originally commissioned the first series had moved on and been replaced.

Discussing the series within the genre of period drama, it was revealed that despite having cost an estimated £10 million to make, Dickensian was at the lower end of a budgeting spectrum. As period dramas are considered an especially British output and are exported across the world, they comprise the majority of new television commissionings and Dickensian was comparatively small – especially when contrasted with Netflix productions such as The Crown. The biggest difficulty with period drama, both Ruth and Holly agreed, is the challenge it poses to diversity casting. Existing among those who produce period dramas is an unfortunate perception that audiences will struggle with more diverse casting than might match their personal ideas of what the characters look like. In attempt to combat this, Holly reveals she had suggested that the Barbary sisters might be of Indian origin, fitting with the trading route Mr. Barbary would have followed. By the time she made this suggestion, however, actresses had already been cast in the roles of Honoria and Frances. Moving on to comment upon the setup of the first episode itself, Holly noted that the downside of only showing the first episode is it we do not have chance to meet Stephen Rea’s Inspector Bucket! The first episode had a lot of work to do as a setup for the rest of the series and both felt it is impressive in this respect – since the main purpose of the first episode was to show off the cast of characters, Cratchits, Barbarys, Havishams, et al., it achieves this without doubt.

Progressing into the Q&A portion of the evening, questions asked spanned from enquiring in greater detail about production details of a series such as Dickensian, to spoilers about what might have happened had the series continued. Regarding the potential for the series to be saved by another broadcaster (in the way Amazon Prime did for Ripper Street, for example) the answer was an unfortunate negative. Ruth explained that would have required a pre-existing funding model that Dickensian did not use. Furthermore, as the entire set of winding streets used for Dickensian had been built inside a warehouse, this placed a financial constraint upon the window in which the series needed to be renewed: a second series either needed to be commissioned quickly to justify keeping the set together, or else the entire set would need to be rebuilt from scratch to great expense.

Ruth and Holly

Responding to a question about the friendship between Amelia and Honoria, Ruth and Holly revealed that a key question in the early development of the series was out of all of Dickens’ many other characters, who could conceivably have been friends with a young Miss Havisham? A youthful Lady Deadlock was the answer, and so the pairing between Great Expectations and Bleak House became the frame around which the rest of the characters were fitted. Unfortunately, however, Ruth and Holly tell the audience there was never any chance for Miss Havisham’s story ending any way other than it did: the series was conceived as a prequel, intended from the start as a means for explicating how the terrifying Miss Havisham eventually became what she did. Therefore, although the series began with Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop fame (spoiler alert!) surviving her illness, the fate of Amelia Havisham was always fixed.

A further question asked if there had been any concerns regarding Arthur Havisham’s sexuality and the potential for being perceived as making queerness the reason for Arthur’s disinheritance and all that suggested. Holly explained that she had wanted to explore Arthur’s sexuality in greater detail and sensitivity and she struggled with the potential “gay-shame” implication. The script, unfortunately, simply didn’t provide the scope to do this justice. Fortunately, Holly noted, fan-culture has stepped in to fill the gap: she told the audience there is now a great deal of fanfiction sensitively exploring Arthur and Compeyson’s relationship prior to the events depicted in the series. Finally, Holly ended the Q&A section with the tease that had a second series gone ahead, Nancy and Bill’s relationship would have been a driving plotline, and Compeyson would have dealt with the consequences of his actions.