Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Far from bleak!

Sunday afternoons, unless I'm misremembering, were Dickens infested: The T.V. might have been black and white, but the lasting visual memories are peopled with richly coloured characters.

Later, post ‘Civilisation’, Attenborough induced colour came.

But the essential BBCness remained monochrome - a brooding delight in rough, pencil sketched, hard-lined iconography - stretching the ludicrous mask of caricature over the malleable faces of great actors.

There was a Pickwick (Nigel Stock?); a Makawber (Bob Hoskins); a Lady Dedlock (Diana Rigg).

There were fogs, and graveyards, rowing boats and carriages; mud: And rain, dirt, exploitation.

If Dickens reinvented Christmas – then the BBC reinvented Dickens.

What the dickens is it about 'Dickens' that make such great television, and how does the BBC 'do' such great Dickens?

I suspect one aspect is the humour to be found in ‘The Gothic’ – for Dickens, despite his highly valued serious reputation, never lost hold of the quick thrill and the cheap laugh. Good actors can play such stuff for all it is worth.

Like Shakespeare, no matter what weird, intellectual shapes latter generations have twisted the work into, the writer was writing for money, and for a ‘lower-class’ of audience. But neither craftsman patronised that audience – they knew their fortunes lay in entertaining them. However, I fear Shakespeare loved and liked his Groundlings more than Dickens his readership.

Shakespeare had ‘but a short time’ to stuff his ‘seven acts’ into; Dickens had a much longer period – but split into episodes each of which had to, soap-opera-like, cliff hang. Neither writer could luxuriate in a slowly developing character (real time) – although both were able to give impressions of organic-like growth.

Both writers are pre-Freud – their psychology is immediate, not sub-conscious – the only things hidden are from the world, not from the self – people might choose to ignore truths about themselves, but that is the free choice of Protestantism.

As a consequence, we can blame – and there is nothing so entertaining as being able to judge, and preferably condemn, others.

Dickens has also got the journalist’s sense of the newsworthy.

Despite the common belief that the news is factual, it really is just another form of storytelling – and its attraction lies in the power of the news story to describe the disruption an event causes to a perceived normality.

I think this is one of the big differences between Dickens and Shakespeare: Dickens plays against an accepted social norm – The fog caused by the Court of Chancery might be ubiquitous, but it is an aberration, it is unjust; Shakespeare constantly asks, what is justice?

Another, somewhat surprising, difference can be found in Dickens great ability to create a solid environment in which to place his characters: We can honestly talk of ‘Dickens’s World’ – not so Shakespeare. Hamlet belongs not in Denmark, but on the empty stage.

And here we come to one major reason for the success of the BBC-Dickens marriage. (And partly the reason for the more disastrous of the BBC Shakespeare.)

The BBC is willing and able to spend money on sets, costume and make-up – and it has the technical skills of a very experienced in-house crew to call upon. The uninformative term, ‘Production Values’ is used to describe this constant. It is not only the willingness of great actors to participate in minor roles that brings success to theses productions.

As technology has developed, the BBC has been quick to apply it to new adaptations of Dickens.

Once the heavy television cameras fixed programmes firmly in the studio – or required the use of much more expensive film cameras.

Now the lightness of equipment and the ease of digital editing, etc. mean the ‘sets’ can frequently be real buildings, real places. In the 2005 Bleak House, Lady Dedlock is truly at home.

But it is not only the solidity of bricks that have benefited from the move in technology - I was struck by the power of the sound picture in the new Bleak House. Not since the BBC Radiophonics Workshop tingled my spine with the Doctor Who theme have I been so ‘worked-on’ by a television soundtrack.

The sound edit is matched by the picture edit – both cleanly modern.

And then there is the direction – risking going over the top and stopping just in time. Another case of young talent being given the space they need?

For that is surely another key to the BBC’s success – the mix of experience and youth.

I have to admit, I don’t really like most Dickens – but every time I watch a BBC adaptation, I have to give the writer another chance – so, off to the bookshop in search of Bleak House.