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11 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:00pm

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?

By Rachel Holdsworth

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.

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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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