Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bleak House

With The West Wing now having been viewed in its entirety, I looked around for something to replace it, and found Bleak House, the BBC serial version, on display at the library. 15 episodes, but much shorter episodes than The West Wing ones.

I kept saying to my wife: I don’t remember that from the book, but in fact they stuck pretty closely to it. In spite of the fact that I’ve read Bleak House twice, the details obviously haven’t stuck with me as well as I’d thought.

It’s pretty well done, considering it’s produced in that BBC fashion of not stinting on costume and casting, but on lighting and scenery. Somehow the BBC, for all its expertise, still plays the niggard on certain aspects of its major productions. And there’s quite a bit of hand-held camera, which sometimes gets annoying, particularly when the camera’s prowling around one of the enormous gardens and we have to spy on the characters through leaves, plants and bushes.

There’s more story than I remembered, but for all that, some of the characters, such as Harold Skimpole, seem excess to requirements. My strongest feelings about the whole thing relates to the casting: some of it is top-notch, some of it is odd.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Esther Summerson as a determined kind of character who dives in boots and all and seems to have few qualms about herself. Not quite how I remember Esther from the book: there she was much more backward about coming forward. Still, Martin has some very moving and affecting scenes. 7 out of 10.

The Wards in Chancery are excellently cast, and actually manage to give life to two of the duller characters in the story. Carey Mulligan and Patrick Kennedy therefore get 9 out of 10.

Miss Flight is played by Pauline Collins. She’s the right height, but the wrong shape. This Miss Flight is well-fed and fairly capable – and there are few flights of fancy about her. She seems to have her head well screwed on, whereas as Miss Flight ought to be tiny, like a little bird, barely fluttering her way through life. 5 out of 10, but mostly the producers’ fault for wrong casting.

Equally Jo, the sweeper boy, has plainly been getting his vittles from somewhere off stage. A skinny, small boy is how he’s cast by Dickens, and his illustrator, and this well-fed lad, though he does the part adequately, shouldn’t have been cast in this wizened role. Again 5 out of 10 because of the casting department.

Nathaniel Parker, of all people, plays Harold Skimpole. What is it about skinny people in this production? Parker was quite beefy in a recent TV series, but has lost some of that here. Nevertheless, he’s far too comfortably-built, and never convinces us of the truth of his idea that he’s too much of a child to understand the adult world. Regrettably, because I like Parker as an actor, 4 out of 10.

The one skinny actor who gets everything right is the oddly-named Burn Gorman as Mr Guppy. Not only is this beanpole exactly as Phiz shows him, he’s gauche and irritating, socially inept, has a face like something that’s been pushed sideways and all in all could have sprung from the pages of an early edition of the book. 10 out of 10.

Lady Dedlock is played by Gillian Anderson, who, I only realised part way through watching, is the former X-files leading lady. Some reviewers haven’t liked her much in the part, but I couldn’t fault her. 10 out of 10.

Likewise Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn is the epitome of malevolence, manipulation and heartlessness. Superbly done. I had an impression in my head that Tulkinghorn was a stouter person, but Dance overcame all other impressions within the first episode. 10 out of 10.

Timothy West does Sir Leicester Dedlock wonderfully; Tom Georgeson is a typical Dickens clerk (Clamb); Hugo Speer is Victorian to the sideburns as General George; and Alun Armstrong, while not being how I’d pictured Bucket, makes the role his own. High points all round for these people.

Being a Dickens story, there are a host of other minor characters, from the doctor, Alan Woodcourt to Caddy Jellyby, from young Turveydrop to Snagsby. The list goes on and on.

Two other larger parts are played by Philip Davis, as Smallweed, and Johnny Vegas as Krook. Davis throws himself utterly into his role (though we could perhaps have had one or two less of the shake-ups from his granddaughter) and Vegas is suitably slimy until his explosive demise. Again I would have expected ‘lesser’ men, in the sense of skinnier people. Not too many people managed to carry weight around in Dickens’ time, and the pictures of Smallweed that I seem to recall were of someone virtually at death’s door at all times – but managing to avoid it.

Casting obviously makes a huge difference to any piece, and my carping about skinniness aside, I enjoyed the production overall. And there’s a wonderful moment at the end, which in a way echoes Dickens’ usual tidying-up chapter of what happened to all his characters. Esther finally marries Alan Woodcourt, and as they begin to dance outside, the bright summery field is full of people from the story (those that haven’t died off during the course of it!). It’s reminiscent of the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, with its great dance of life.

Which reminds me that I haven’t mentioned the character I enjoyed most of all. For once, a character that I’d remembered as having a bit of weight turns up in the production as someone of ordinary size: John Jarndyce, the warm and loving man of integrity, wisdom and honesty, the man who struggles with his love for Esther (because he knows he’s too old for her), the man who's unable to help Richard Carstone avoid an untimely death from his addiction to the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case, and the man who helps many others in the course of the story. In this role, Denis Lawson never put a foot wrong. He’s been in television for ever, his first listing being way back in 1969, in Dr Finlay’s Casebook. And he appeared in the first Star Wars and two of the subsequent prequels. If I cold give 11 or 12 out of 10, I’d do it.
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