A Dickens of a day

A Dickens of a day

We cried, we cheered and we clapped (a bit), and then we cried some more. At 11.30 in the morning we set out with Nicholas, Kate and friends, plus a few enemies, on the wonderful journey that was (and, in one way, still is) the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. At my side (in the next seat but one) was co-director Sir Trevor Nunn, and he was still there nearly twelve hours and one panel discussion later. NFT3 at BFI Southbank is perhaps slightly less comfortable than I think the Aldwych Theatre was more than thirty one years ago, but did I care? June 1980 was when, on another magical Saturday, I first entered the world that Sir Trevor, co-director John Caird, adapter David Edgar and of course Charles Dickens had conjured up for me (and around a thousand others). That day was one of the great theatre experiences of my life, which I re-lived when Channel 4 showed its screen translation in late 1982 – and which I was engrossed by and felt angry with and thrilled and laughed and wept at once again yesterday.

The BFI had programmed the Channel 4/Primetime adaptation of Nickleby as part of its excellent Dickens on Screen season (which remains strong through March). There were four parts: 108 minutes, then an hour for lunch, and then another 108 minutes. After a twenty minute break, we had another 108 minutes and an hour’s panel discussion (Nunn, Caird and Edgar – David Threlfall was sick and sent his apologies, and with me as moderator). After that, there was another twenty minute break before we settled down to the final 160 minutes, and we stumbled out onto the South Bank at just after 10.30pm. Not that I would have missed a minute.

The version on offer was projected for an on-air DigiBeta recording from the 1990s when Channel 4 repeated the production. I was pleasantly surprised by how sharp and strong were the images, although the audio was far less good. The show was recorded in 1981 on the stage of the Old Vic (which was dark at the time because of funding difficulties) and there is a good deal of traffic and other noise in the original recording. Which is a salutary lesson for those of us still interested in translating great stage shows to television by filming them on location…

One day I want to write a substantial article about the television production of Nickleby – and this resolve was only strengthened by watching it once again yesterday, and of course by hearing the creatives discuss it. But a few random reflections will have to suffice today, the first of which is that as television it stands up to the passing years incredibly well. Director Jim Goddard and director of photography Tony Imi filmed this beast of a production across eight weeks – and they did a wonderfully good job. The visual pacing still feels very good, and many of the images balance very well the imperatives of reflecting the original staging and creating something striking (and often beautiful) for the screen.

In part because we are tackling comparable questions in our forthcoming television film of Julius Caesar (of which more tomorrow), I found it particularly intriguing to see that the television version used three kinds of visual ‘grammar’. Parts of the shows, and especially the openings and closings, were shot with a theatre audience, who at times became part of the action, cheering, booing and throwing muffins (you had to be there). Much of the action, however, was filmed with cameras on the stage close to the actors, and working with the conventions of multi-camera studio recording.

Then there are some short sequences where the camera is used with far greater expressive intent, as when Smike (David Threlfall) runs away in panic after John Browdie (Bob Peck) has released him from the clutches of Mr Squeers (Alun Armstrong). Smike is shot from below ‘running’ in centre frame, and ‘behind’ him against black are superimposed rows and rows of the faces of those who have tormented im through his life (the inadequate image above gives some idea of this). There is no sense that this is replicating on screen a visual experience that might have been on offer to the audience in the theatre. It is emotionally effective (sort of) but it also feels as if it has been inserted from another screen version altogether.

This time through I was more conscious than ever that Threlfall’s pitiful and pathetic Smike is not only the emotional focus of the production, but also that the performance is on another plane from the rest. The cast is crammed with wonderful RSC stalwarts doing great and glorious things (let’s hear it in particular for Lila Kaye’s magnificently over-the-top Mrs Crummles) but they remain exactly that – actors as characters. Threlfall becomes Smike, contorting his body, stuttering in his speech and creating another person in whom we believe in a quite different way. Somehow here there is nothing between actor and acted, and the impact is elemental, extraordinary – and at times desperately moving.

There’s so much more one could say – and I was interested that Trevor Nunn, who had not seen the television version for more thirty years, said how pleased he was with it, despite some small frustrations about some of the lighting and the loss of much of the ‘theatrical’ business (like characters changing costumes on stage). I’m delighted that the focussed and thoughtful panel discussion, which ranged across the production history, Dickens and the theatre, and the television version, was filmed. An edit of that will shortly be available online (and I’ll publicise the link when I have it). For those of you who missed it, you can approximate the effect with the DVD version (it’s out of print, but copies can be found on eBay, and the RSC Bookshop in Stratford had some when I was last there). And I look forward to the next time the BFI arranges an all-day screening – I’ll be there.