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Our Mutual Friend (1976)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Our Mutual Friend (1976)
BBC2, tx.1/3-12/4/1976
7 x 50 minutes, colour
DirectorPeter Hammond
ProducerMartin Lisemore
ScriptJulia Jones
 Donald Churchill
Original NovelCharles Dickens
MusicCarl Davis

Cast: Jane Seymour (Bella); Leo McKern (Mr Boffin); Jack Wild (Charley Hexam); Lesley Dunlop (Lizzie Hexam); Duncan Lamont (Gaffer Hexam); Kathleen Harrison (Mrs Boffin); Andrew Ray (Mortimer Lightwood); Warren Clarke (Bradley Headstone); Alfie Bass (Silas Wegg); John McEnery (John Rokesmith)

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The discovery of a young man's body in the River Thames invites interests across London when it emerges that the dead man was apparently heir to a fortune.

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First dramatised by the BBC in 12 episodes in 1958, Charles Dickens' last completed novel is a satire on class and money, and one of his most complex and sophisticated fictions. In the mid-1970s, script editor Betty Willingale commissioned a new version from Julia Jones and Donald Churchill, following the success of their comedy drama Moody and Pegg (ITV, 1974-75). Churchill had never read the novel, and Jones recalls that she read it out to him while he typed a breakdown of the story.

Pruning the story for just seven episodes meant losing treasured characters, such as the Lammles, but the consensus was that the adaptation excelled in realising the original's savagery, compassion and humour, while avoiding much of its sentimentality. The Sunday Times' Peter Lennon thought that the adapters "managed to preserve the marvellous incantatory rhythms of narrative and dialogue", while Ronald Higham in the London Evening News admired "the way in which [the writers] have succeeded in compressing Dickens's work without destroying its atmosphere or its characters." It probably helped that Jones and Churchill had also both been actors. At a subsequent public screening at the National Film Theatre, Jones remembers, one audience member described the series as a wonderful wedding cake, revealing layer upon layer.

The cream of contemporary British character actors, among them Leo McKern, Alfie Bass and Kathryn Harrison, was called upon to bring to life Dickens' usual gallery of eccentrics, grotesques and rogues, and there were standout performances by the young Nicholas Jones, Warren Clarke and John McEnery in the more psychologically complex of the male roles.

The script honoured Dickens' theme of the river and its role in shaping and reshaping his characters, aided by striking lighting and production design, as well as by Carl Davis' dark and sombre music score, with its echoes of Mendelssohn. The delicious and underrated Lesley Dunlop proved a touching and resilient Lizzie, Jane Seymour - already an international star - made a convincing transition from a mercenary and 'wilful' Bella to a loving and supportive wife. Polly James, a 35-year old playing a 13-year-old girl, was simply astonishing as the little, lame, hunch-back Jenny Wren. The juxtaposition of the dolls she dresses with Bella's seeming destiny of being a beautifully dressed doll in a rich 'doll's house' was cleverly pointed up.

A four-part BBC adaptation appeared in 1998, wihle BBC Radio's 2009 version had the luxury of 20 episodes.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Afloat on the river (7:06)
2. Fatally bored (4:41)
Complete first episode (51:32)
Dickens on Television