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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.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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