Despite its habit of drawing things out, this series has captured the style of Dickens and drawn viewers into a fully-imagined world. It’s hard to imagine people not asking for more.
This series from Tony Jordan, who has written for EastEnders and had a hand in both Life on Mars and Hustle, takes you straight into the world of Charles Dickens by taking numerous characters from many of his different books and placing them on the same street. They know each other. They live in the same environment. Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle) is friends with Miss Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton). Fagin (Anton Lesser) clashes with Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea). The Cratchit family are one of the many preyed upon by Ebeneezer Scrooge (Ned Dennehy). Bill Sikes and Nancy watch from the sidelines, and Little Nell is working away in the Old Curiosity Shop. You can see how this could get confusing, even to the extent of asking what the Dickens (sorry) is going on, and it is to the series’ credit that it keeps a firm grip on proceedings.
The 20-episode series (yes, 20) started way back in the depths of Winter on Boxing Day, and has been continuing in half-hour instalments twice a week ever since. Very soap-like in tone, it has been hard not to be reminded of EastEnders every now and again whilst watching Dickensian. Then again, Charles Dickens was one of the forefathers of something akin to the soap – serialised literature – with monthly instalments of The Pickwick Papers from early 1836 to late 1837. This, however, thanks to its characters, has more class than the denizens of Albert Square.
It’s all very well putting all these characters together, though, but they have to have something to do, and thankfully that is the case here. Jacob Marley (Peter Firth), of the notoriously unforgiving moneylenders Scrooge and Marley, is found dead at the end of the first episode. Naturally, being the spiteful bloke he was, everyone under the smog is under suspicion. Cue Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea, outstanding) to sort things out in a dignified and solemn fashion, all whilst routinely murdering the phrase ‘I will have my man’. Imagine someone having their mouth yanked unexpectedly sideways by an invisible string on approaching the end of their catchphrase and you’ve just about got it.
And given the length of the series, Bucket’s investigation is milked for all it’s worth, as are other juicy sub-plots. In proper soap style, the makers of the show draw things out to the point where you just want to know the truth. But this sort of format does also allow for further development of the characters, and deeper exploration of events which happen prior to some of the books, so in that respect a stay of execution is welcome.
But whilst it takes a great deal of time to tie up some of the loose ends, there is great drama at points throughout the series, especially in one later episode which is a two-hander between troubled sisters Honoria and Frances Barbary (Sophie Rundle and Alexandra Moen). All the emotion built up over previous weeks comes spilling out and both actresses do a formidable job of portraying it. However, fear not – there is humour too, courtesy of incidental characters like ridiculous social climbers Mr and Mrs Bumble (Richard Ridings and Caroline Quentin) and good-for-nothing drunk Mrs Gamp (Pauline Collins). Some scathing put-downs from Scrooge further ensure that it’s not all doom and gloom.
So in spite of the at times maddening structure and length, the good performances across the board keep Dickensian moving well, and the series successfully catapults us into an involving, intriguing world where the future can turn on a single choice. That said, it is evidently trying to go for a second series given the way things have ended, and that to me is a mistake. Always leave them wanting more, to bend the words of a certain street urchin, and then when you don’t give them more, they’ll have to search it out for themselves. Then Dickensian will have succeeded.
If you’ve read some of the books this series borrows judiciously from, then you’ll know that there’s only one way some of the stories can end in Dickensian. Some of the characters have a disturbing talent for big mistakes, and it’s testament to how well they’ve been fleshed out (despite how much of a Victorian soap this feels like) that we care so much about the choices they make. You hope fervently that they might deviate from the course of literary history and set themselves on a different path. You long for them not to make the wrong choice. Then again, if they didn’t, there would be no more stories. What the Dickens indeed.