The Other Bleak House: The BBC 1985 Serial
by Mark Wallace
The BBC serial adaptation of Bleak House broadcast in 2005 came in for a great deal of praise both from critics and from the general public. Indeed, a perusal of the Amazon.co.uk reviews shows that general approbation has been almost universal: 99 reviews (as of 4 August 2012), avg. 4.8 (out of 5): 87×5 star, 9×4 star and one each of 3, 2, and 1 stars. And even the one star review insists on the merits of the series, giving one star solely on the basis of the DVD release policy (deluxe edition with extras only 9 months after initial release). So this blog is somewhat in the minority in not enjoying the serial.
In technical terms Bleak House was undoubtedly something of a departure for the classic serial. Quick scenes, lots of sound effects, kinetic camerawork. Everything to give the impression of ceaseless movement, a plot rushing towards revelation and resolution. It was interesting also that the DVD cover claimed the serial was Bleak House “stripped of its sentimentality”, certainly a departure from the aesthetic of fidelity that has been presumed to be paramount in classic serials. Bleak House was not to be faithful, rather it was to distance itself from Dickens’ sentimentality. Yet ultimately, shorn of its sonic and visual innovations, Bleak House was more conventional than intended. The script, by the patron saint of adapters Andrew Davies, did not escape sentimentality, and, despite making interesting comments about his reworking of Esther Summerson’s character (in an interview in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (CUP, 2007), she remained what G.B. Shaw called Dickens’ Esther, “a maddening prig“, humourless and quietly but immovably judgemental. It’s not so easy to strip Bleak House of its sentimentality, because the whole plot revolves around Esther’s loveability: Jarndyce loves her, Woodcourt loves her, Guppy loves her, Caddy loves her, Ada loves her, everybody loves her! A perhaps impossible challenge for the adapter is to render Esther as likeable to the reader as she is to everyone in the diegetic world, or at least to make it plausible that she would generate such extreme affection; making the other characters recognize that she’s actually “a maddening prig” won’t work, because the love of these characters for Esther operates on the development of the plot – no love for Esther, very little plot.
In the 1985 BBC Bleak House, now unfairly overshadowed by its successor, the problem of Esther isn’t really solved either, but we do have a quieter Esther, who stays in the background as much as is feasible given her large role in the plot. She is silent where Dickens’ Esther is disingenuously self-denigrating and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Esther in the 2005 version is (I think) too assertive, too secure in her judgements. Silence is, frankly, about the best that can be done with Esther.
The 1985 Bleak House is very much in the mould of the classic serial: no 24-style zooming lenses here, just long scenes, static camera, and often only the dialogue and the actors’ faces to concentrate on. The obligatory orchestral score is relatively understated, often giving way to the dialogue. There are some very effective long scenes, a 10-minute scene in Lady Dedlock’s drawing room with Lady D and Guppy springs to mind. With the almost total absence of non-diegetic sound and the long, still close-ups of the two actors, it’s almost theatrical, and it works wonderfully. Diana Rigg is an excellent Lady Dedlock, all told.
Of course, there’s difficulty with the plotting: Lady D.’s death is dealt with in episode 7 (of 8, 50 minutes each), so the final episode is given over almost totally to Richard’s experience in Chancery -a terrible scripting decision: all the other strands are already gathered together, so there’s an inessential feel to the episode; it feels more like a long afterword than a properly integrated episode, certainly not a climactic final episode. Other plot lines are just dropped: as far as I remember, George is last seen or heard of in prison in the penultimate episode, and his release is not dealt with. Overall, though, despite this serious caveat, this Bleak House copes admirably with the difficulties of the adaptation and seems to my judgement to be a better bet than its successor, with a more sympathetic and nuanced (if less well structured) script, and more understated but effective performances.