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The BBC's latest Nick Nickleby tries to do Dickens without pathos

We’re lucky the BBC still brings the classics to the masses.

Nick Nickleby

I don’t suppose many of you have noticed that a 21st-century update of Dickens, Nick Nickleby, has been running every day on BBC1 this past week; for reasons I can’t quite fathom, the series went out at 2.15pm – not exactly peak-time viewing.

What was it like? Weird. So hard to know who it was written for. With its broad humour and its pantomime dialogue, it felt like a children’s programme at times – or perhaps one for what used to be called teenagers and are now reverently known as “young adults” (yuck). But aren’t children and even young adults supposed to be at school at 2.15pm on a weekday? Or at the very least, hanging about in some bus shelter or other? Hmm. Perhaps the Bargain Hunt/Flog It crowd is more easily pleased than I thought.

Sadly, what worked for Sherlock Holmes didn’t work for Nicholas Nickleby, though I think we can blame this on the series’ writer, Joy Wilkinson, rather than on the idea itself. Dickens, it seems to me, has rarely chimed with modern life so harmoniously as now: the wealth and the poverty, the sudden changes in fortune, the vulgar characters and the downtrodden, the taste for transformation. But you have to do a little more than simply transpose him – a writer must still write, even if he has nicked someone else’s plot. Wilkinson had her characters saying things like: “Come!” instead of “Come on!”, with the result that it all sounded somewhat clunky. Given that clunkiness is the enemy of pathos, this was a problem. For what is Dickens without pathos?

In this version of the story, Nick (Andrew Simpson) and his family, having lost their home on the death of the debt-ridden Mr Nickleby, headed for London to seek help from Uncle Ralph (Adrian Dunbar), a man whose vast wealth was built on the back of care homes for the elderly. In the city, the malevolent Ralph was not at first too keen on the idea of supporting his long lost relatives. But, after an oligarch pal took an interest in Nick’s little sister, Kat, he suddenly changed his mind. Kat and Mrs Nickleby were duly dispatched to a hotel. Nick, meanwhile, was sent off to Dotheolds Hall, a care home in Yorkshire, where, it was promised, he would learn all about Ralph’s business. Dotheolds Hall. Do you see what they did there? And yes, it was horrible, run by a one-eyed villain, Wackford Squeers (Mark McDonnell), whose favourite sport was to tie an old lady called Mrs Smike (Linda Bassett) to a chair.

And so it went on. No doubt it’s on iPlayer, if you feel inclined. I didn’t like it much. On the other hand, I couldn’t really hate it, either. Not just now. It seems to me we are amazingly lucky to have a public broadcaster that still feels inclined to try to bring the classics to the masses (I count myself among the masses, before you all write in). On some deep level – this connects, I think, to my grandmother, who left school at 13, was blind, and who loved to listen to Dickens on the radio – the fact that Nick Nickleby exists at all cheers me. Better Nick Nickleby than Homes Under the Hammer. Better Nick Nickleby than, well, Sky 1.

You know where this is leading. I’ve been trying all week to think what to say about the Jimmy Savile affair. But every time I turn my mind to it, I hear the same refrain in my ears: be careful. This is a dangerous time for the BBC and an anxious one for those of us who cherish it. When politicians such as Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary since about five minutes ago, start talking about a loss of trust (how many people, I wonder, has she met who’ve suffered this sudden crisis of faith?), you know youmust be on your guard.

It’s utterly baffling the loathing that the Tories have for the BBC. The people who vote for them couldn’t live without it; as I’ve always maintained, the middle classes would riot if Radio 4 went off air. But since they’re unable to grasp this basic fact – it’s a visceral thing; it lurks deep in the kinks of their colons – we must pay attention. So I’ll just say this. Whatever else happens, we can’t allow the BBC to be made the scapegoat for the sins of a whole generation.

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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis