Bah! Humbug! Bleak House by Charles Dickens (BBC Drama 2005)

Bleak House is the best novel ever written.

 

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What? You don’t agree? Then let me give you just three reasons to try to convince you…

dickensApart from the usual Dickens’ stuff – the gorgeous language, the lush descriptions, the humour, the unforgettable characters, the social commentary and, of course, the romance – Bleak House could fairly lay claim to being the first modern crime novel, complete with the earliest appearance in an English novel of a police detective, Inspector Bucket. Wilkie Collins often gets the credit for this with his Sergeant Cuff, but I don’t know why, since he didn’t appear till a full fourteen years after Dickens’ creation and was clearly a derivation. Perhaps it’s because there is so much else in Bleak House that it isn’t primarily thought of as a crime novel, but the detection element is crucial, while the murder is central to the book, and is in fact one of the finest and most atmospheric pieces of writing in the English language. And Bucket is one of the most enigmatic detectives.

Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand to-night or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”

The novel is best known, however, for Dickens’ brilliant and excoriating depiction of the Courts of Chancery – a place of ruined hopes and ultimate despair, perhaps best summed up by Miss Flite in the naming of her birds, all to be set free on the Day of Judgement. Who but The Great Man could turn such a dry subject as the processing of wills into a sweeping saga of life and death, hopelessness, madness and cruelty? As always with Dickens, even when he’s in full social-rant mode, he shows his contempt through the human lens of the effect on his characters, major and minor.

“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”

The brilliance of his writing is shown in the reader’s willing acceptance even of his most extreme flights of fantasy. The spontaneous combustion scene paints a picture of such creeping horror – the stench, the drifting soot, the grease, the discovery – that the central incredibility is easily overlooked. A piece of horror writing that stands with the very best.

A thick yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”
“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.
And yet look here – and look here! When he brings the candle here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks, here lies in a little thick nauseous pool.

(Now that’s how to use the present tense!)

* * * * * * * * *

This is all a lengthy preamble to introduce this week’s recommendation of how to ensure you…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

bleak houseThe 2005 BBC production of Bleak House is my favourite of all the Dickens TV serials. Adapted by the brilliant Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P) this was originally produced as a series of half-hour episodes that were aired twice-weekly after one of our leading soap operas, in a largely successful attempt to draw in a new audience.

For the same reason, the casting is a mix of costume drama stalwarts, along with a strange mix of people drawn from popular culture who might be expected to bring their own audience. So we have Alistair McGowan, best known over here as an impressionist; Gillian Anderson, with her following from the hugely popular X-Files; and, most strangely, Johnny Vegas, a somewhat off-the-wall comedian. Lump them together with people of the stature of Charles Dance (a superb Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson as Mr Jarndyce and Pauline Collins as the most vulnerable Miss Flite of all time – and this should have been a complete mess. But somehow the directors (Justin Chadwick and Susannah White) pulled extraordinary performances out of everyone involved, lit the whole thing in contrasts of light and gloom, shot it in HD, and wove through it the beautifully atmospheric music orchestrated by Julian Kershaw; turning the whole thing into a feast for the senses.

The quality of the casting can be seen by looking at the three central young characters, all of whom have gone on to become leading lights in their profession – Anna Maxwell Martin, Timothy West and a very young Carey Mulligan in her first major role.

Go on – you know you want to…and Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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50 thoughts on “Bah! Humbug! Bleak House by Charles Dickens (BBC Drama 2005)

  1. FictionFan – You don’t need to convince me. The novel is Dickens at his best I think. And you’ve captured quite well all that makes it work, so I won’t go on about what you’ve already put so well. Now I must make sure I see the film adaptation, something I’ve not (yet) done…

  2. Its for sure (IMO) Dickens’ best – but can’t go so far as ‘of all time’ Perhaps i can’t quite forgive you, from that absolutely wonderful BBC adaptation, for not also singling out Burn Gorman, as Guppy, in a performance which was both horribly creepy and actually rather heartbreaking. Anna Maxwell-Martin was of course another heartbreakingly wonderful performer

    • Then what’s your pick? I feel I should know that from previous discussions but it escapes me…a Russian perhaps?

      I’m conflicted about Burn Gorman in the role, to be honest. I love him and there’s the problem – I feel I shouldn’t. He’s too nice – he makes me want Esther to marry him. Not his fault – a directorial decision obviously, but for me it’s the one weakness of the production – though oddly his performance adds much to my enjoyment. I didn’t in truth find him creepy, but heartbreaking, absolutely. AMM was fantastic in the role – I’ve never seen her since quite live up to the potential she showed in Bleak House. And Carey Mulligan’s performance was lovely, the perfect Ada.

      • I knew you were going to ask me that (pick the fave) I find that practically impossible, but, yes, my slavonic soul is definitely more grabbed by the Russians (that strong litre and a half of vodka which i guess must run in my ancestral veins.I definite substrate of mystical melancholy. I felt FORMED in some way by The Idiot (no comments, please!)

        • I don’t feel the need to comment – I think that speaks for itself! 😉

          No, on the whole I don’t enjoy the Russians – partly too depressing and partly translation issues mean I never find I’m admiring the writing. But then you like dark chocolate while I like milk… (there’s probably a thesis in that somewhere).

          Sorry for delay in replying – your comment was languishing in spam again…and I keep forgetting to check it regularly.

            • A rather large Wiki postcard – its all down to Monty Python and the Spam sketch! :

              According to the Internet Society and other sources, the term spam is derived from the 1970 Spam sketch of the BBC television comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.[16] The sketch is set in a cafe where nearly every item on the menu includes Spam canned luncheon meat. As the waiter recites the Spam-filled menu, a chorus of Viking patrons drowns out all conversations with a song repeating “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam… lovely Spam! wonderful Spam!”, hence “Spamming” the dialogue.[17] The excessive amount of Spam mentioned in the sketch is a reference to the preponderance of imported canned meat products in the United Kingdom, particularly a brand of tinned pork and ham (SPAM) from the USA, in the years after World War II, as the country struggled to rebuild its agricultural base. Spam captured a large slice of the British market within lower economic classes and became a byword among British children of the 1960s for low-grade fodder due to its commonality, monotonous taste and cheap price — hence the humour of the Python sketch.
              In the 1980s the term was adopted to describe certain abusive users who frequented BBSs and MUDs, who would repeat “Spam” a huge number of times to scroll other users’ text off the screen.[18] In early chat rooms services like PeopleLink and the early days of Online America (later known as America Online or AOL), they actually flooded the screen with quotes from the Monty Python Spam sketch.[citation needed] With internet connections over phone lines, typically running at 1200 or even 300 bit/s, it could take an enormous amount of time for a spammy logo, drawn in ASCII art to scroll to completion on a viewer’s terminal. Sending an irritating, large, meaningless block of text in this way was called spamming. This was used as a tactic by insiders of a group that wanted to drive newcomers out of the room so the usual conversation could continue. It was also used to prevent members of rival groups from chatting—for instance, Star Wars fans often invaded Star Trek chat rooms, filling the space with blocks of text until the Star Trek fans left.[19] This act, previously called flooding or trashing, came to be known as spamming.[20] The term was soon applied to a large amount of text broadcast by many users.

            • Goodness! I used to quite like Spam as it happens – Mum used to make spam fritters and they were yummy. Admittedly it might have been the batter and grease that appealed…I am Glaswegian after all!

  3. Sorry, wouldn’t dream of watching any of them. I have the starring roles
    already established right in my mind–from when I first read Bleak House.
    They’ll never be replaced. Tempting, but, no, no . . .can’t do it.

    • Haha! I know what you mean – I try to divide the serialisations from the books in my mind and not compare them too much, generally speaking. But I love the gorgeous costumes and they’re always full of such great actors that I can never resist watching…

    • Thanks, Cleo! You can pretty much open Bleak House at any page and find great quotes – his writing is just fantastic and always reads as if it’s a natural flow – not over-worked. Since you love the book, I honestly think you’d love this serialisation… 🙂

  4. “Bleak House” is my favourite too, but I haven’t seen the serial though – somehow, I always seem to have too many books on the go……

  5. I definitely have days when I think ‘Bleak House’ is the best of Dickens but then I also have days when I think it’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and days when I’m certain it’s ‘Little Dorrit’. Fortunately, I don’t actually have to choose between them I am in the wonderful position of being able to luxuriate in them all.

    • I think it’s because I prefer Esther to most of the other heroines. That, and the fact that I think the writing of the murder is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read…

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