Dickensian: For Hardcore Dick Fans

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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.

Dickensian (2015)

Captain James Hawdon & Honoria Barbary meet cute for a Bleak House prequel.

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.

Dickensian (2015)

Miss Havisham & her half-brother Arthur have far less amicable beginnings.

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.

Dickensian (2015)

It’s like she knows she’s doomed.

Dickensian (2015)

Miss Havisham & Compeyson — if you’ve read the book, it’s no spoiler to say he’s a bad guy.

Dickensian (2015)

Don’t tell Kendra, but the dog doesn’t make it.

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!

Dickensian (2015)

The freakishly cheerful Cratchit family — Bob & his daughter Martha on her wedding day.

Dickensian (2015)

Nancy’s a whore, so no hairpins is OK, I guess.

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.

Dickensian (2015)

The nicest thing about the costuming is how the designer used as many flattering V necklines as possible (somewhat less popular in this period than round necklines, but much prettier).

Dickensian (2015)
Dickensian (2015)

Foreshadowing!

Dickensian (2015)

This isn’t going to end well.

Dickensian (2015)

Annnnnnd … we’re out.

 

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?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. MoHub

    I am sick to death of mashup programs. From Once Upon a Time to Penny Dreadful, it was an idea once, and now its just theme and variations. I am a huge Dickens fan and a literary purist, so I don’t think I’d be interested in Dickensian. For heaven’s sake, show creators! How about actually creating something?

    And I’d put Miss Havisham’s ruined wedding farther back. Remember, she’s already a deserted, ruined, middle-age bride when Pip first meets her as a child of no more than 10. I’d say she was more likely ditched at the tail of the 18th century.

    At any rate, I’d prefer not having my Dickens messed with.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Mashups really are the thing these days, no? I suppose if producers can hit on your specific genre *and* do it right, it’s great fun – I count Penny Dreadful as a win in the Victorian gothic horror mashup for me. But not every one of them is successful, that’s for sure. Dickensian has gotten very mixed reviews in the British press, but it wasn’t panned, prob. because the high production values & decent actors.

      Reply
      • twodeadqueens

        I suggest you watch a few more episodes before you dismiss the Great Expectations storyline as ‘predictable’! I absolutely love this series.

        (Btw, the jilting would have been 1790s/early 1800s by the timeline of the novel.)

        Reply
  2. Mary

    I’m kind of intrigued but worried it would be too much to keep track of. I was surprised at Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. My first thought was “Empress Sisi!” (Elisabeth’s portrait was done in 1865).

    Reply
  3. Charity

    I enjoyed watching it as it aired, but it lacked… something. I felt at times there was too much modern thinking and morality interfering with the narrative. Dickens, as a man of the time, understood the morals and social games of the time in a way the modern adaption did not.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      The part I watched certainly lacked depth — I thought it might be because there were too many characters / storylines crammed in together. But if it simply continued on the same way through the whole 20 eps, ugh. What’s the point? Dickens is all about the characters, that’s his work’s one redeeming value. They’re so richly drawn. I didn’t get that from Dickensian, despite solid actors.

      Reply
      • Charity

        The writer did well with a large cast of characters and in giving them back stories and such, but you’re right, there wasn’t real depth there.

        Reply
  4. Janette

    I would agree with everything that has been said above about this series. I love Dickens’ writing but this series does not do his work justice at all. Tony Jordan who wrote it is supposed to love Dickens but I felt he really did not grasp the characters or depth of Dickens works at all. As Charity observed there was too much modern thinking in evidence and no feel at all for the historical setting. Upper middle class women did not work behind shop counters. (I am reasonably certain because I have researched this matter for my own writing.) Mrs Cratchit might well have made pies to sell as a lot of working class women worked to help support families but I doubt very much she would have served behind the bar of a pub.
    The actions of the characters neither fitted the original character or the period. I watched with teeth grinding through much of it. There were some nice moments however and Stephen Rea’s Inspector Bucket was superb. He carried the show. I also rather liked the young Jaggers and I would have adapted the Artful Dodger myself if I could have but as for the rest, well , Bah Humbug seems appropriate.
    The superfluous Fanny Biggitywitch character really sums it up. An invention of Tony Jordon’s not Dickens who serves no function at all and appeared to stepped in from the set of East Enders borrowing a discarded costume on the way.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, there were little bits that were forced for the sake of the plot, but wouldn’t make sense in Dickens’ world or period. Kind of a waste of decent actors & fine costumes / sets!

      Reply
  5. Karen K.

    I always thought Bleak House was set around the 1830s — I remember they didn’t have railways yet, everyone traveled by coach only. And I agree with other posters about messing with Dickens. I get really tired of people borrowing dead authors’ creations. I really don’t want someone else’s interpretation of Miss Havisham’s back story or the doomed romance between that broke Lady Dedlock’s heart.

    If this were on TV in the states, I might watch it, but I doubt I’ll look very hard for it.

    Reply
  6. Julian Keys

    As a “Christmas Carol” fan I took at look at episode 1 online. Scrooge felt all wrong (too vocal and nasty. We fans tend to rate Alister Sims as the best Scrooge and he’s a chillingly cool and calm sort, not snappish).,And I was immediately confused by the fact that Tiny Tim was at the table. There is 7 years between when Marley dies and we get the events of “A Christmas Carol.” There are six Cratchit kids (Martha, Peter, Belinda, a younger boy & girl and Tim). Martha at the start of CC is working at the milliners. If she’s 16 in CC (she’s an “apprentice” so she actually should be even that old), then she ought to be nine in this show. Peter younger than that (say six), and Belinda younger than that (say four). The youngest boy/girl Crotchets ought to be toddlers and TT an infant. Underfed and crippled might account for TT being very small for his age, but he still has to be a child seven years after Marley’s death, not a teenager.

    This bothered me a lot, and as I was feeling there was, as said, something lifeless about the whole thing, I gave up on it. The costumes were nicely done, but they didn’t grab my attention either. Nothing, really, grabbed my attention with the exception of Fagan. I thought that actor and his rendition of Fagan very intriguing and would have loved to have seen an ‘Oliver twist” with him playing the role..

    But the rest of the characters and how they were portrayed/acted left me shrugging my shoulders. It all seemed rather dull. Too bad. Or maybe not. I’m really not sure that Dickens characters should be mashed up like that. Maybe because each book contains such a huge ensemble of fascinating characters already. Ones that fit their stories, go together, and carry the plot along. Try to mix-and-match and they cancel each other out, losing their luster like a bunch of gem stones in hand rather than in the right settings.

    Reply
  7. Hazel

    Just re-watched this and was reminded of the things I liked about it, but the costuming issue I want to raise, is that Miss Havisham’s wedding ensemble, complete with flowers in her hair, is clearly trying to recreate the famous portrait of Sissi wearing her diamond stars.

    Reply

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