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.