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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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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

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