'Who calls so loud?' The line, of course, is Smike's. I say 'of course', but you'll only know this (and then you really will know it) if you were one of those who thrilled to the RSC's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby thirty years ago. On Sunday night I sat in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon and watched a clip from the 1982 Channel 4 broadcast of Smike (David Threlfall) dying in the arms of Nicholas Nickleby (Roger Rees). 'Who c-c-calls so loud?' Yes, gentle reader, I wept. I wept for Smike, but I wept too for the memory of one of the supreme theatrical experiences of my life. Nor was I alone, as two hundred or so other fans had gathered with cast and creatives for a celebration of the extraordinary, the spectacular, the unrepeatable 'Nick Nick'.
The event was part of the RSC's 50th birthday celebrations. Adapter David Edgar, co-director John Cairdand co-designer John Napier were joined by nine of the cast, including David Threlfall, Timothy Spall (Young Wackford), Suzanne Bertish (Fanny Squeers) and Edward Petherbridge (Newman Noggs). As we took our seats they wandered the stage chatting with us, just as the cast had first welcomed us to the Aldwych back in the summer of 1980. What followed combined anecdotes and recollections, a masterclass in adaptation, the replaying of a few scenes, some songs and some clips - and a lot of jokes. We laughed and we cried - we even learned a little too.
We learned that The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby was a response to a significant cut in the RSC's public funding. Odd as it may seem, with all of the cast already contracted to the company, it made sense to mount one of the most ambitious shows ever (eight hours, forty-five cast, an 800-plus page novel) as a way of balancing the books. We learned that one of the inspirations was co-director Trevor Nunn going to Russia and seeing Dickens adaptations being played in towns across the continent. And we learned that the other Dickens novel that Nunn and Caird considered carefully was Our Mutual Friend.
I first saw the show on a Saturday very early in its initial eight-week run. As I recall, although you could see it over two nights, for the immersion experience you started before lunch on a Saturday and stumbled out into the streets of WC2 just as last orders were being called. You time-travelled through the world of mid-Victorian Britain, visiting the grimmest of boarding schools, watching a shambolic touring production of Romeo and Juliet (which is where Smike's line comes from), seeing life at every level of society, experiencing love and loss and exploitation and cruelty and friendship and joy.
Although critical response was mixed (a reading of Michael Billington's original review was greeted with boos on Sunday evening) Bernard Levin in The Times famously described the production as 'a ceaselessly entertaining... dramatic triumph... we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed.' Which was just about spot-on.
One of the pleasures of the show (which I eventually saw three times) was that you felt that the characters became your friends (and your objects of enmity). Which was part of the reason why 'meeting' them again on Sunday, albeit that they were still on a stage, was so delightful. It's also why the DVD of the television version, produced by Richard Price Television Associates for Channel 4, is so precious. At the time, I remember that I was very sniffy about this.
How, I thought, could television capture even a fraction of what it was like to share Nicholas's adventures, to laugh with the Cheerables, to marvel at the Infant Phenomenon, to despise the naked capitalism of Ralph Nickleby (gloriosuly played by John Woodvine)? Thirty years on, I'm about to watch the whole thing again, and I'm more grateful than I can say for Channel 4's funding and producer Colin Callendar's initiative. Thank you - and thank you, too, RSC and everyone involved.
To give you a sense of the television version, here's a slightly random extract posted to Youtube (but if you watch it you have to promise to buy the DVD).
The South Bank Show made a special programme, Nickleby & Co, about the theatre event, and much of this is also posted on Youtube. Here's what seems to be the first part.
PS. When 'Nick Nick' had become a huge hit, the theatre director and prankster Ken Campbell sent out a bunch of letters on faked stationery purporting to come from Trevor Nunn. Because of the show's success, 'Trev' explained that the company had decided to change its name to the Royal Dickens Company. Some of the letters went to directors offering them the chance to realise Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations and the rest. And according to John Caird, at least one of his colleagues rang up the next day to accept!
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