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Hard Times (1977)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Hard Times (1977)
Granada Television/WNET/Thirteen for ITV, 25/10-15/11/1977
4 x 50 min episodes, colour
DirectorJohn Irvin
ProducerPeter Eckersley
ScreenplayArthur Hopcraft
From the novel byCharles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Allen (Gradgrind); Timothy West (Bounderby); Alan Dobie (Stephen); Barbara Ewing (Rachel); Rosalie Crutchley (Mrs Sparsit); Ursula Howells (Mrs Gradgrind)

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In the north of England in the 1850s, Thomas Gradgrind's belief in the importance of facts over feelings is tested when his daughter embarks on a loveless marriage to his friend Mr Bounderby and his son is involved in a financial scandal.

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Granada's critically acclaimed dramatisation of Charles Dickens' Hard Times (ITV, 1977) paved the way for its hugely successful literary dramas Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984), and its Sherlock Holmes mysteries (ITV, 1984-94) starring Jeremy Brett.

Originally published in weekly instalments in 1854, Hard Times tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind and his dutiful daughter Louisa against the backdrop of the industrial north in the fictional Coketown, partly modelled on Manchester, where the serial was filmed (using the old railway yard behind Granada's studios).

The four-part adaptation by Arthur Hopcraft is streamlined but generally very faithful to the book and, as directed by John Irvin, the serial is presented with considerable panache, as was the case when the two collaborated again on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979). Although large chunks of Dickens' dialogue remain intact, Hopcraft was inevitably forced to prune the text quite considerably. As a result, Mrs Gradgrind's role is reduced (although her celebrated death-bed scene remains), while some characters were removed entirely (such as Bitzer and Gradgrind's two youngest children). This sadly also extends to Bounderby's mother, whose appearance in the novel reveals that his repeated sermons about his harsh upbringing are largely a fabrication.

Hopcraft's adaptation foregrounds Dickens' themes of mechanisation and depersonalisation set against the pull towards an interior landscape of feelings and imagination. This conflict is articulated on screen through a series of contrasts, beginning with the arrival of the travelling circus, which exemplifies the world of 'fancy' and creativity, as it passes outside Gradgrind's school, where children are taught that only facts have merit. This contrast is then starkly emphasised when Sissy has to decide whether to stay with her extended circus family or to leave it for the sake of an education. This finds a powerful echo when, in the concluding episode, Tom joins the circus to evade the authorities.

Malcolm Arnold's theme music, full of foreboding and appropriately scored for brass, matches the atmospheric cinematography by Ray Goode, both complementing Irvin's incisive yet understated direction. His handling of the cast is exemplary, with Alan Dobie and Timothy West predictably fine as the dour Blackpool and the ludicrous Bounderby respectively. Patrick Allen, however, is a revelation as Gradgrind, utterly convincing as a man deeply in the sway of Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianist world-view, who eventually finds that family love outweighs his beliefs in social engineering.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Facts and nothing else (3:40)
2. Bounderby (2:23)
3. Circus life (5:10)
4. Stephen Blackpool (2:30)
Complete episode 1 (49:46)
West, Timothy (1934-)
Granada Television
Dickens on Television
TV Literary Adaptation