Do you like Dick? If Dickens is your thing, then Dickensian (2015) may tap into your fantasies. The premise of this BBC series is that characters from various Charles Dickens stories overlap and interact for 20 half-hour episodes in part soap opera, part mystery. It aired in the UK last winter, though I’m not sure when/where it’ll be available stateside.
Now, admittedly, I’m not a big Charles Dickens fan. If this concept were done with Jane Austen characters, I’d be onboard 100%. Say, Mr. Darcy getting the hots for Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, Emma meddling with everyone in Northanger Abbey, and Captain Wentwoth pursuing Lizzie Bennett. Cool! But I watched the first hour of Dickensian and was not enthralled. Maybe it’s just me, but I wasn’t impressed at how the different novels’ characters interacted — because they hardly did. Presumably the stories get more entwined further on in the series, but it wasn’t set up well at the start.
The main action revolves around Scrooge and Marley’s business (from A Christmas Carol, complete with Bob Cratchit and his poor-but-happy family). The nasty duo lend money to at least two characters from other Dickens stories: The Old Curiosity Shop and Bleak House. One more significant crossover is with Oliver Twist. I will say that the Bleak House tie-in is pretty obscure, way before events in the novel, and that makes it interesting to puzzle out.
Likewise, the one plot that’s (in the beginning) unrelated to Scrooge and Marley is also a backstory. We learn all about the origins of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. This part feels pretty predictable, which I guess is the risk you run in these things. Surely there are pot twists to come before the obligatory ruined wedding, but the pacing and characterizations weren’t enrapturing enough for me to stick around.
The Costumes in Dickensian
To put all these characters together, Dickensian sets the story in a generically Victorian 1850s-ish London. That’s reasonable enough and will seem familiar to the casual viewer (and SF Bay Area folks will recognize this as what Dickens Faire does). However hardcore Dickens fans (and literary purists like me) may be put off and not recognize characters when they aren’t in the appropriate time period and costume.
The one that threw me off most was young Miss Havisham. Great Expectations was written in 1861. The older Miss Havisham is in her 50s, so when she was young and at her wedding day, it would have been around the 1830s. I’ve always pictured her differently as a young woman before getting jilted at the altar.
Really, all the stories are outside of their true literary settings — A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, and since Marley is alive in Dickensian, the period for that plot must be seven years before. The Bleak House characters are at least 20 years younger in this show than in the 1853 novel. Interestingly, Oliver Twist was written in the 1830s, and The Old Curiosity Shop was published in 1841. Really, if you wanted to make all the stories be contemporary to each other, they actually are closer if you set the program in the 1830s! But directors and producers seem to have a fear of dressing actors in the exaggerated fashions of that era. This is a literary nitpick, but if you’re making a show that appeals to literature nerds, it counts!
For the chosen period however, the look is good. Costume designer Andrea Galer has plenty of experience in British period TV, including other Dickens stories and Jane Austen adaptions. The production has rich, dark, layered look in the set design as well, evoking wintery Victorian London with grimy streets and flickering gaslight. Familiar British costume drama actors show up too, including Tuppence Middleton (War & Peace) as Miss Havisham, Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) as Honoria Barbary, and Anton Lesser (Wolf Hall) as Fagin.
If you’re the kind of Dickens fan who knows Mrs. Gamp from Mrs. Bumble and gets a kick out of Fanny Biggetywitch, as as well as hitting all the highlights of the big-name stories, then Dickensian is worth hunting down online or elsewhere. But if Charles Dickens doesn’t make your toes tingle, don’t worry about missing this sprawling series.
Are you a big Dick fan?