Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Dickens on Television

The author's original serials find their natural home on the small screen

Main image of Dickens on Television

The English Sunday in the 1950s: incontestably the most boring day of the week and immortalised in a classic radio episode of Hancock's Half Hour, in which Tony Hancock, Sid James and Bill Kerr spend the entire programme trying and failing to think of something enterprising or even remotely entertaining to do. One aspect of Sundays that did, however, become a valued feature of British life was the literary serial on BBC television, the channel here fulfilling its educational function of making our cultural heritage accessible to all.

The most frequently adapted author was Charles Dickens, partly no doubt because of the postwar popularity of David Lean's films of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), but also because the novels themselves teemed with the kind of incident, comedy, character and intrigue that had always lent themselves to dramatic treatment. The original publication of his novels in serial form suggested their suitability for television adaptation, where the stories could unfold in weekly episodes. No one surpassed Dickens' mastery of the suspenseful cliff-hanger which left a reader gasping in anticipation of the next instalment.

In a highly influential passage in his study of the English novel, The Great Tradition (1948), the literary critic F.R. Leavis had described Dickens as "a great entertainer" but a novelist who fell short of the highest artistic stature because "the adult mind doesn't find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness." Leavis was to revise his opinion in the centenary year of Dickens' death (1970), but until then, it tended to be Dickens the entertainer and cultural icon who was highlighted, not Dickens the social critic. In his book Films and British National Identity (1997), Jeffrey Richards recalls how he "grew up in the 1950s watching Peter Wyngarde as Sydney Carton (in A Tale of Two Cities) and Patrick Troughton as Quilp (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and was turned into a Dickens reader by watching the television adaptations." This was just what the BBC intended.

However, an early adaptation that disturbed viewers - and occasioned questions in Parliament - was the 1962 serialisation of Oliver Twist, and particularly the brutal murder of Nancy (Carmel McSharry) by Bill Sikes (Peter Vaughn) in its final episode. It was a reminder of the darker side of Dickens and could be defended from the charge of sensationalising the novel simply by pointing out how brutally the incident is described in the text. A more sensitive issue was the timing of the broadcast. Was this suitable matter for family viewing? On the other hand, if you made Dickens only palatable for a young or family audience, were you not diluting his harsh vision of social cruelty and injustice?

Arguably the most significant TV adaptation of Dickens in the 1970s was Granada's version of Hard Times (ITV, 1977), adapted by Arthur Hopcraft and directed by John Irvin and shown in four weekly episodes of 50 minutes each. Its strategic scheduling during midweek primetime viewing challenged the BBC's strategy of the Sunday serialisation and suggested a broader audience was consciously being targeted. What's more the choice of text was unusually bold, Hard Times being the most concentrated and severe of Dickens' major works, as well as a novel about education - a controversial political issue in 1977. Then prime minister James Callaghan was launching a so-called 'Great Debate', calling for a return of basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic and attacking the progressive, less regimented educational tendencies of the previous decade. Hard Times seemed a relevant intervention, for in it Dickens attacks an approach to education that starves the imagination and that stresses utilitarianism over creativity.

The Hard Times serialisation anticipated a number of important 1980s' interpretations of Dickens (notably the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic production of Nicholas Nickleby in 1982 and Christine Edzard's mammoth two-part film of Little Dorrit in 1987) that saw the novelist, in the absence of a modern fiction equivalent, as the most relevant and trenchant of social commentators in a Thatcher era that openly espoused the virtues of self-interest and so-called 'Victorian values'. Wrestling with the tensions between the requirements of public service broadcasting and the pressure of market forces during the Thatcher years, the BBC responded with a magnificent 1985 midweek serialisation on BBC2 of Bleak House, also adapted by Arthur Hopcraft and directed by Ross Devenish. A particularly telling moment occurs when Dickens' indictment of Victorian society is transferred from the novel's authorial voice and put into the mouth of the main character, John Jarndyce (a superb performance from Denholm Elliott), as he rages at the death of the abused and malnourished sweeper, Jo and implicates the whole of society in the tragedy of the boy's death. 'Dead!' he cries. 'Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.'

Since then a number of adaptations have lodged in the memory. ITV's 1989 version of Great Expectations compensated for the miscasting of Anthony Hopkins as the convict Magwitch with the inspired casting of the great Jean Simmons (the young Estella in the Lean film) as Miss Havisham, literature's most famous jilted bride; and their 1999 serialisation of Oliver Twist, scripted by Alan Bleasdale, caught something of the novel's nightmarish evocation of corruption and criminality. For the BBC, David Lodge scripted a powerful adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit (1994); and its star-studded version of David Copperfield in 1999 (with Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith and Ian McEllen amongst the illustrious cast) is now primarily remembered as being the production which, because of his performance as young David, landed Daniel Radcliffe the role of Harry Potter. The most striking production of the last decade has been Andrew Davies' adaptation of Bleak House (2005), less moodily atmospheric than the 1985 version, but with great visual energy, the narrative magnetism of a soap opera, and some compelling performances, notably from Charles Dance as the evil lawyer Tulkinghorn and Gillian Anderson as the tragic Lady Dedlock. Davies' splendid adaptation of Little Dorrit (2007) had less impact, perhaps because the novel itself is so diffuse; but in the recent three-part adaptation of Great Expectations (2011), Gillian Anderson consolidated her Dickensian credentials with surely the most emaciated and mentally deranged Miss Havisham on screen, someone for whom unrequited love has turned into a cancer of the soul.

Over the years the classic serial has come in for some criticism for its cultural conservatism (recycling the same set of canonical works) and for packaging up a heritage 'product' that appeals more to a nostalgia for the past than an engagement with the present. Dickens, however, seems eternally topical. He might have been born two hundred years ago, but his recurrent themes - child poverty, Establishment hypocrisy, bureaucratic insensitivity, the corruption of financial tycoons, the yawning gap between rich and poor - could have been torn from yesterday's headlines. He remains a gift for any imaginative dramatist or director for his startling imagery and rousing rhetoric; and his indignation at social injustice can still bore holes in a nation's conscience. In hard times, nobody does it better.

Neil Sinyard

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Michael Hordern stars as Scrooge in this BBC Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of David Copperfield (1966)

David Copperfield (1966)

Ian McKellen plays Dickens' hero in a sensitive early BBC adaptation

Thumbnail image of Dombey and Son (1983)

Dombey and Son (1983)

Rarely adapted Dickens tale of a stern father and his misplaced affections

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1959)

Great Expectations (1959)

Faithful and well-performed early TV adaptation of Dickens' classic

Thumbnail image of Hard Times (1977)

Hard Times (1977)

Acclaimed adaptation of Dickens' Northern industrial melodrama

Thumbnail image of Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)

Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)

Televisation of the RSC's acclaimed Dickens production

Thumbnail image of Little Dorrit (2008)

Little Dorrit (2008)

Masterful adaptation of Dickens' tale of the corrupting effect of money

Thumbnail image of Our Mutual Friend (1976)

Our Mutual Friend (1976)

Dark, powerful adaptation of Dickens' final completed novel

Thumbnail image of Signalman, The (1976)

Signalman, The (1976)

Charles Dickens adaptation set in a haunted railway station

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Dickens on Film

Dickens on Film

The 19th Century literary giant has long been a favourite of filmmakers

Thumbnail image of TV Literary Adaptation

TV Literary Adaptation

From page to screen

Related People and Organisations