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Dickens on Screen by Gemma Starkey
Introduction The Magic Lantern The Silent Era Postwar Boom Solving the Mystery Acting Dickens
The Postwar Years
"We all relate to Dickens even if we haven't necessarily read him. We think we know him, we think we know his characters, and they say something about us in terms of being British people. I think that's why filmmakers at that point turned to him."
  - Adrian Wootton, CEO, Film London

The postwar years were a time of austerity for Britain. Poverty, rationing and housing problems were just a few of the big issues facing many people in the mid-to-late 1940s. But while it was certainly a time of hardship, it was also one of great optimism: the long war was over, men were returning from battle and the nation could begin building a better future, starting with a fairer education system, improved social security and a National Health Service.

Set against all this was a growing appetite for entertainment, and cinemagoing was by far the most popular form. The cinema offered an escape from daily reality, and the studios let go of war stories to satisfy changing public tastes for comedy, romance and Technicolor, and for stories that suited the new patriotic mood.

Meanwhile, a number of British filmmakers who had been developing their skills during the war years were reaching their creative peak. One of these was David Lean. A respected film editor before the war, by 1945 he had directed four successful feature films. In 1946, and again two years later, Lean turned to the works of Charles Dickens for his subject matter. The result was two of the most celebrated ever Dickens adaptations: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

Sandwiched between Lean's two films came the Brazilian-born director Alberto Cavalcanti's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Released by Ealing Studios, Cavalcanti's film was inevitably overshadowed at that time by Lean's masterpieces, but now, more than 50 years later, it's arguable that the time is ripe for its reappraisal.

With the help of Nigel Algar, senior curator of fiction at the BFI National Archive, and Adrian Wootton, CEO of Film London, we look back at these three remarkable Dickens adaptations and explore the social context in which they were created.

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Film clips courtesy of Imperial War Museums, ITV Global Enteratainment and Studiocanal. Thanks also to the Charles Dickens Museum.