1 9 7 6 (UK)
7 x 50 minute episodes
The discovery of a young man’s body in the River Thames invites interests across London when it emerges that the dead man was apparently heir to a fortune.
Charles Dickens’ last completed novel is a satire on class and money, and one of his most complex and sophisticated fictions. Pruning the story for just seven episodes meant losing treasured characters, such as the Lammles, but the consensus was that the adaptation excelled in realising the original’s savagery, compassion and humour while avoiding much of its sentimentality.
The cream of contemporary British character actors – including Leo McKern, Alfie Bass and Kathryn Harrison – was called upon to bring to life Dickens’ usual gallery of eccentrics, grotesques and rogues, and there were standout performances by the young Nicholas Jones, Warren Clarke and John McEnery in the more psychologically complex of the male roles.
The delicious and underrated Lesley Dunlop proved a touching and resilient Lizzie, international superstar Jane Seymour made a convincing transition from a mercenary and ‘wilful’ Bella to a loving and supportive wife, and Polly James (best known for her role as Beryl Hennessey in the first four series of The Liver Birds) – a 35-year old playing a 13-year-old girl – was simply astonishing as the little, lame, hunch-back Jenny Wren.
The juxtaposition of the dolls she dresses with Bella’s seeming destiny of being a beautifully dressed doll in a rich ‘doll’s house’ was cleverly pointed up.
The script honoured Dickens’ theme of the river and its role in shaping and reshaping his characters, aided by striking lighting and production design, as well as by Carl Davis’ dark and sombre music score, with its echoes of Mendelssohn.
The Sunday Times‘ Peter Lennon thought that the adapters “managed to preserve the marvellous incantatory rhythms of narrative and dialogue”, while Ronald Higham in the London Evening News admired “the way in which [the writers] have succeeded in compressing Dickens’s work without destroying its atmosphere or its characters.”