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Dickensian is boring – and it’s Charles Dickens’s fault

Let’s face it: Dickens wrote potboilers. Why would it be interesting to watch half a dozen of them mashed together onscreen?

Is anyone still watching Dickensian? I mean actually watching, not just having on in the background; moving wallpaper while making dinner or thinking up your next Twitter zinger. I tried. It was a cunning ploy to launch it over Christmas when your Mum would put it on because she likes that kind of thing. But dear lord above, it’s boring.

There are a few problems that can be laid at the door of the programme makers. First of all, Dickensian doesn’t know if it’s a murder mystery or a clever look at the characters’ backstories. One minute we’re carefully unpicking the mental state of Miss Havisham, the next we’re rollicking around with Inspector Bucket pointing fingers at half the cast over Marley’s murder. (And, much as I love Stephen Rea, I don’t give a fig about the Inspector’s ongoing back problems.)

Second, it was a major error to tell those backstories at all. Everyone’s heard of Miss Havisham, and even without having read Great Expectations can probably hazard a guess that it is the dastardly Compeyson who sets her mouldering in a wedding dress. But without realising that Honoria Barbary one day grows up to be Gillian Anderson/Lady Dedlock of Bleak House, and the plot twist within that book, Captain Hawdon’s presence and his failure to get promotion is baffling. It relies, in effect, on spoilers.

Yet Dickensian’s problems run deeper than this, which we should have expected. Consider the source material. Yes, it’s really all Dickens’s fault. Despite his reputation as the world’s greatest storyteller, he couldn’t write relatable, multifaceted characters to save his life. Particularly women.

I must have been 15 when I threw a copy of A Tale of Two Cities across my bedroom. The heroine, Lucie Manette, had just fainted for what felt like the tenth time in as many chapters. I had no time for such a wilting flower and, when I finally slogged my way through the novel some decade later, felt it would have been a far, far better thing for Sidney Carton to have run as far in the opposite direction from her weedy influence as possible.

Dickens’s women are only allowed one character trait. They are either moral, mad or monstrous. To be fair, so are plenty of his men, but at least some of them have interesting interior lives. In Our Mutual Friend, anything spiky and different about Bella Wilfer evaporates the moment she falls in love (I know we’re initially meant to dislike her but at least she has personality in those early chapters).

Dickens’s daughter, the painter Kate Perugini, said her father didn’t really understand women. No kidding. Tony Jordan and Dickensian’s writers are admirably trying to shoehorn some modern feminist spirit into the script, but it’s resulting in exchanges like this:

“I’m a woman in a man’s world, of course they’ll be judging me.” – Amelia Havisham

“Why shouldn’t you be in charge? A woman rules our country, our whole Empire.” – Honoria Barbary

The clanging of that dialogue could wake up Rip van Winkle.

And still I blame Dickens rather than the scriptwriters. The core attribute of the central female characters is “simpering”; change that too much and the conceit that these are Dickens’s creations is lost. (Note to the BBC: you should have hung on to Julia Davis. Then if you wanted a Victorian serial you could have had Hunderby.)

Let’s face it: Dickens wrote potboilers. Plot is important in serialisation; characters with rich inner lives and complex motivations less so. He wrote characters in the cartoon sense, emphasised by his insistence on giving them ridiculous names. You can imagine the delight in the Dickensian writers’ room as they came up with the so-far uncanonical Fanny Biggetywitch. Wonder how she’s going to turn out.

You might argue that Dickens christened his characters with such names to instantly connect with his readers. I’d argue that introducing Mr Heinous Evil-Bastard and Miss Simperingly Delightful in chapter three is an eye-roll inducing exercise in nominative determinism. Congratulations, you can now work out the rough plot. Have fun wasting time with the next 50 chapters.

Dickensian has started from the assumption that we will engage with its dull plots because we care about the people. Yet Dickens created one-dimensional ciphers to service his more important narrative twists; twists that Dickensian is relying on viewers knowing about before they even showed up. The result is a show that has a hole where its heart should be. And that’s your fault, Charles.

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution