What sad news that there is to be no second series of Dickensian, the superlative mashup of Charles Dickens’ characters by Tony Jordan, the Eastenders writer. Over twenty episodes the series ingeniously wove together back stories to Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Bleak House and A Christmas Carol, together with several other characters taken from Dickens’s vast cast list. Fagin rubbed shoulders with Scrooge, Inspector Bucket crossed with Bob Cratchit, Mr Bumble played host to Gradgrind, Amelia Havisham was best friends with Honoria Barbary. What could have been merely a clever intellectual exercise revealed itself to be an original and logical entertainment. You could see the delight in the actors’ eyes at the quality of the writing and the piquancy of the situations in which they found themselves.
The reason for a second series being dropped is cost and falling audiences for the first series, which started with five million viewers but saw this drop to two million by the time of the twentieth episode. Part of the reason for this fall was the erratic scheduling, which seemed to change hour and day each week, though that must have been to some degree a consequence of waning audience interest early on, after its Boxing Day launch. I think also that twenty episodes was a bit much; it would have worked that much better over a dozen. At its weakest it overplayed the obvious (particularly the Miss Havisham strand). At its best it was as good a television drama as there has ever been.
In particular episode 16, in which Honoria gives birth, aided only by her embittered sister Frances, was among the best 30 minutes of televised drama that I have ever seen. While previous episodes had criss-crossed over the series’ different story strands, in the usual soap opera manner, this episode concentrated on the one story alone with remorseless intensity and extraordinary effect, from the panic leading up to the birth to the shock of the dilemma Frances puts herself in at the end of the episode (no spoilers here, though it helps to have read Bleak House). In writing, pacing, performance, lighting, decorative detail, and use of our knowledge of the characters’ pasts to create tension and force climax, this was a programme to hold up as the best of what the medium can achieve. It was also a convincing argument for why literature belongs on the screen.
It sometimes seems that we are getting bored with the classics, and must mangle with them to sustain our jaded appetites. Sequels and prequels, modernisations, parodies, and revered characters battling with the living dead, seem to express an ennui, an admission that no one has the patience to read novels any more, or else frustration at some great novelists not having written more than they did.
At the start Dickensian looked as though it was yet one more example of this syndrome, a desperate stirring of the ingredients to try and come up with something new to lay on the table. Instead it showed that there was life in these characters beyond that set down on the page by Charles Dickens – and that re-imagining of the classics is not sacrilege but insightful, and even necessary, when it is done right. It showed how characters on the page remain in our minds because they live convincing lives. Those lives can be sustained in other forms, where there is enough imagination and belief. Indeed, to sustain those convincing lives, it may be as important to re-imagine such stories as to read them. If we can no longer read past works as those in the past did, because we are different people (different in outlook, different in sense of time), but if those works’ status as art must endure, then re-imagining becomes an essential part of how we continue to tell them. Which does not mean Little Dorrit and Zombies – it means getting inside the mind of the author and plucking out something new along with the familiar. This is exactly what Tony Jordan and his team did: they re-energised the mind of Charles Dickens.
The saddest thing about the news that no further series is to be made is the sense of lost art. Jordan has reportedly scripted sixty episodes, pointing out that Dickens had created over 2,000 characters and so far he has only used thirty. A work of art lies unmade, maybe several such works of art. It is as tragic as a burnt manuscript, a what-might-have-been that could still be reality if only someone was braver, and the schedulers more consistent. In some alternative universe Dickensian series 2 can be seen, bringing delight at its ingenuity and pleasure at how it extends the art of a great novelist. But not in this one.