Dickens delights and discoveries

28th January 2012

To BFI Southbank for a most engaging day exploring small-screen adaptations of Charles Dickens. Three sessions throughout Saturday featured a host of fascinating clips and a number of engaging guests. In the morning, writer, curator and co-conceiver of the recent Arena: Dickens on Film Mick Eaton offered a lively lecture outlining the history of the author’s adaptations. (An earlier post enthused about Dickens on Film.) We saw the 1994 The Late Show: Who Framed Charles Dickens?, which was originally transmitted alongside the major Martin Chuzzlewit of that year. A panel of practitioners reflected on recent serials, and then at teatime the teatime Dickens of our childhoods were recalled by three of those who brought his books into our homes during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Across the jump are ten things I took from the day – ideas, people and programmes that I didn’t know about before and am happier for having learned about.

• In the final panel the legendary script editor and producer Betty Willingale, who herself started at the BBC in the mid-1950s, spoke with great affection and admiration of the director Joan Craft. I pride myself in knowing a bit about the history of television drama – and there are few enough studio drama directors who were women – yet hers was a name that was entirely unfamiliar. Her credits, however, are truly impressive, from the thirteen episodes of The Old Curiosity Shop in 1963 through to Lorna Doone in 1976. Here is the first part of her 1974 six-hour David Copperfield (she had previously directed a thirteen-episode version with Ian McKellen in 1966):

• Another name that was new to me was the writer Constance Cox, who was the main writer of scripts for classic serials after Dickens and others in the early years. From a 1998 obituary in The Independent I discover that she adapted classic novels for the stage in the immediate post-war years and then transferring her skills to television. She wrote versions of Jane Eyre in 1956 and 1968, and her Dickens serials include Martin Chuzzlewit (1964) and A Tale of Two Cities (1965), both of which were directed by Joan Craft. Among her other credits were episodes of The Forsyte Saga (1967-68).

• Among the remarkable extracts that we saw was a fragment from Arthur Benjamin’s opera A Tale of Two Cities which the great director Rudolph Cartier staged for television in 1958. The work had had a radio broadcast in 1953 and then a full staging at Sadler’s Wells in 1957. Cartier clearly choreographed a full-on studio spectacle that appeared sufficiently intriguing to warrant further investigation (and a screening of the full-length work). Time and again through the event I was struck by how little we know of the history of television programmes, as opposed to the institution, its political context and its technologies, all of which have been better served by researchers.

• Another fascinating extract was a clip from the start of the BBC’s 1959 Great Expectations which starred Dinsdale Landen and Colin Jeavons as Pip and Herbert Pocket. But what we saw was the encounter between young Pip and Magwitch, which – especially after David Lean’s 1946 feature film – remains the defining scene for any version of this book. And while this one was most definitely shot in the studio (overseen by producer Dorothea Brooking) it stood up very creditably, not least because it had the time to roll out much of Dickens’ own dialogue.

• For me, Betty Willingale was the star of the day, and session chair Dick Fiddy skilfully drew out her anecdotes and recollections. I hadn’t realised that her role as a script editor was one that was introduced when executive Sydney Newman came across from ABC to head up the BBC’s drama department in 1962 (the link is to Tise Vahimagi’s exemplary short profile at BFI ScreenOnline). Newman is such a central figure in the development of British television drama, but again his career has not (yet) been subject to the detailed research that it demands.

• Newman apparently hated the classic serial in its Sunday teatime slot, and Betty Willingale recalled that at his BBC retirement party in 1967 he said, ‘I’ve got one big regret – I couldn’t kill off the “f”-g classic serial.’ ‘Only he didn’t say “f”-g,’ Betty Willingale added with a smile.

• One last cherishable image from Betty Willingale’s recollections, even if it has only the most tenuous connection with Dickens. She worked for a short time on the soap about a trendy magazine called (both soap and magazine) Compact. This ran from 1962 to 1965 and, like almost all drama through to the mid-1960s actors, it was broadcast live. Such was the tension of this process for the cast especially, that Betty Willingale recalled often seeing actors just before the show lying at the edge of studio and vomiting

• Among the other Dickensian gems from the archive is The Signal-man, taken from one of the short stories in the Mugby Junction collection. Filmed with Denholm Elliott and screened in 1976 as the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas, this was Andrew Davies’ first adaptation for television – he would of course later write Middlemarch (1994), Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Bleak House (2005). This was once available on DVD from the BFI but was one of the titles that fell victim to BBC Worldwide’s rapacious demands for high licence fees when it came time to renew the contract. So I have little compunction about including an unauthorised YouTube version:

• The biggest surprise of the day was learning of a 1994 adaptation by playwright Peter Barnes of Hard Times for BBC Schools (illustrated above). From the clips we saw, this show in four half-hours looks terrific – imaginative, expressionistic and effortlessly rising above its miniscule budget. Thrillingly it’s available on DVD (albeit as a Dutch import), and so a copy is now on its way to me.

• Like many others, I think my second-favourite television Dickens is the tremendous 2005 Bleak House, directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White. But there were a goodly number on Saturday who spoke up for the BBC’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1994), adapted by David Lodge and starring Paul Scofield and Keith Allen. This was directed by Pedr James, who came for the BFI event and who was a delight to meet and talk to. This too is now on order from Amazon.

And, yes, I did write ‘second-favourite’… I doubt that any Dickens adaptation will ever dislodge from its place in my affections the 1982 Primetime/Channel 4 adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. BFI Southbank is showing all eight hours on 28 February, but I’m not even going to link to it because the day is completely sold out. I’ll there (and I’m chairing a post-show discussion too) so at least you’re guaranteed a future blog.

Meanwhile, here’s a section with Roger Rees as Nicholas and Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, courtesy of YouTube:

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