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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.