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Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)

Main image of Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)
Primetime/Channel Four for Channel 4, tx. 7-28/11/1982
1x150, 2x120, 1x170 min, colour
DirectorJim Goddard
Stage DirectorsTrevor Nunn
 John Caird
ProducerColin Callender
ScriptDavid Edgar
Original novelCharles Dickens

Cast: Roger Rees (Nicholas Nickleby); Emily Richard (Kate Nickleby); John Woodvine (Ralph Nickleby); Edward Petherbridge (Newman Noggs); David Threlfall (Smike); Alun Armstrong (Mr Squeers); Suzanne Bertish (Fanny Squeers); Bob Peck (Sir Mulberry Hawk)

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Following their father's death, Nicholas Nickleby, his sister Kate, and their mother are thrown upon the mercy of their uncharitable uncle Ralph. Nicholas has no choice but to join the infamous Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire as a schoolmaster, while Kate finds employment with high-class milliner Madame Mantalini.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Charles Dickens' great Victorian novel, Nicholas Nickleby was the first major drama commissioned by Channel 4 and was transmitted in four separate parts on consecutive Sundays in November 1982. By that time, the production had become legendary. Because of cuts in subsidy, the RSC had been unable to mount its usual three new productions for the 1980 season and had instead decided to mount a single production, involving the talents of practically every member of the company. Masterminded by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, this became a 9-hour version of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted by David Edgar and featuring 43 actors, who shared 150 speaking parts.

At first lukewarmly received by the critics, unprecedented public acclaim had helped to compel a re-appraisal of the play; a two-hour South Bank Show (ITV, 1978-) special had furthered its reputation; and by the time of its broadcast, it was widely seen as the great theatrical event of the early 1980s. The television version was filmed in six weeks by Jim Goddard at the Old Vic during the summer of 1982.

One might see the broadcast as simply preserving a memorable theatrical occasion and some definitive Dickensian characterisations, of which Roger Rees's impetuous Nicholas, John Woodvine's imperious Ralph, Edward Petheridge's heartfelt Noggs and David Threlfall's heartbreaking Smike were merely the most prominent amongst an outstanding cast. Yet its evocation of a world of individual greed and ruthless commercialism, defined brusquely as 'the world we live in', evoked for many the ethos of monetarism and Victorian values espoused by the contemporary Conservative government. Later Dickens adaptations such as the BBC's Bleak House (1985) and Christine Edzard's two-part film of Little Dorrit (1987) followed its lead in using Dickens to comment on contemporary society; and what was perceived in some quarters as the production's 'anti-Thatcher polemic' also anticipated the tone of some films supported by Channel 4, most notably My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears, 1985).

When the channel had expressed its aim to cater for minority tastes, the Cabinet Minister, Norman Tebbit thought it meant programmes for enthusiasts of golf, sailing, fishing, and such. Channel 4's concept of the socially marginalised was more radical and sophisticated than that. In this respect, Nicholas Nickleby symbolised more than just a prestige project for the new channel: it reflected something of its ethos and captured something of the spirit of the times.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1947)
Goddard, Jim (1936-2013)
Peck, Bob (1945-1999)
Channel 4 Drama
Channel 4 at 25
Dickens on Television