The Victorian Sage

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Tag: bleak house

The Other Bleak House: The BBC 1985 Serial

The BBC serial adaptation of Bleak House broadcast in 2005 came in for a great deal of critical praise and was popular with the general public. Indeed, a perusal of the Amazon.co.uk reviews shows that approbation was 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, its bells and whistles, Bleak House seemed to me to be less innovative 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”, sanctimonious and 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 great challenge, perhaps impossible, 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 acceptably plausible that she would generate such extreme affection; making the other characters recognize that she’s actually quite annoying 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, and silence is, frankly, about the best that can be done with Esther.

Suzanne Burden as Esther Summerson, Bleak House (BBC 1985)

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.

Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock

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.

The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.

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