Nick Nickleby, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews
Nick Nickleby, BBC One
Much adapted doorstopper is given a clever spin by updating it to the present day
No Dickens novel seems to come around the block more often than The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, possibly excepting Great Expectations, which is taking a bow on both big screen and small for the bicentenary year. Relatively recent assaults on the teeming 800-page doorstopper include adaptations by ITV, on the big screen, Radio 4 and Chichester Festival Theatre. That would surely count as enough Nicklebys already. But into this bustling crowd the BBC has thrust its own new version. Will it fight for its place in the world like the novel’s impetuous young hero, or be trampled underfoot like poor beleaguered Smike?
BBC Northern Ireland have certainly found a way of attracting the audience’s attention by screening five episodes across the week. Joy Wilkinson's script underpins the idea that Dickens, as no one ever tires of saying, would be writing soap opera if he were active today. Indeed, Andrew Davies latched on to the idea a few years ago with half-hour bi-weekly instalments of Bleak House. But Nickleby – the tale of a young man forced by the death of his father to take responsibility in a hostile world for his mother and sister - is the soapiest book in the canon. A baggy, babbling melodrama, with a supporting cast of heroes, villains and eccentrics all in glorious 2D, it is set in a London where vast wealth and desperate poverty live cheek by jowl. Where The Pickwick Papers established Dickens's reputation for episodic comedy, and Oliver Twist introduced the social reformer and creator of grotesques, Nicholas Nickleby combines all of the above and thus became the first work to convey the full meaning of what we understand by the word Dickensian.
This is a fresh and urgent introduction to Dickens's pioneering imagination
The really clever thing in this new version is its updating of all these elements to the present day. This adaptation challenges the idea that inequality is a social ill consigned to the dustbin of Victorian fiction. Nick Nickleby begins as it means to go on, with bailiffs arriving at the Nicklebys’ Devon farmhouse as they head back from burying Nick’s bankrupt father. Perhaps a trick was missed in not hinting that, like a lot of penniless modern farmers, the deceased had committed suicide. Either way, homelessnesss brings a bereaved widow (Bronagh Gallagher, pictured below) and her two children Nick (Andrew Simpson) and Kat (Jayne Wisener) up to London to fall on the mercy of their uncle Ralph Nickleby.
The modern age specialising all too expertly in heartless financiers, Adrian Dunbar’s Ralph makes for an entirely credible villain. The one neologism is that the ruthless investor he lures with the bait of his pretty young niece is now an unscrupulous and altogether disgusting Russian oligarch with a taste for young female flesh: Sir Mulberry Hawk thus becomes Hawkovsky (Gerry O'Brien). Meanwhile, Dotheboys Hall has had a makeover. It’s here known as Dotheolds Hall and instead of mistreating and malnourishing children, a ghastly one-eyed Mr Squeers (Mark McDonnell) runs a care home with his chavvy, hot-to-trot daughter Frannie (Hollie Taylor).
The most ambitious change involves not only age but gender. Smike, a poor crippled boy in the book, is now an abandoned old woman, played by Linda Bassett. (Nerdy factoid: in the first ever stage adaptation, done almost before the ink was dry on the book, Smike was played by a Mrs Keeley.) Indeed, the only emissary from the 1830s who seems entirely unchanged, even if it’s just his very Dickensian name, is Ralph’s hapless clerk Newman Noggs (Jonathan Harden), who here becomes the narrator.
The one mystery is why Nick Nickleby wasn’t shown last week when most schools were on half term. Do record it or seek it out on the iPlayer. This is a fresh and urgent introduction to Dickens's pioneering imagination, and a grim reminder that those ills against which he railed, though often in mutated or refracted form, are still very much with us. Along with some new ones.
- Nick Nickleby continues on BBC One until Friday at 2.15
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
The birth of the notion of musician as superstar
The creator of The Liver Birds, Bread and Butterflies recalled in her own words
Russell T Davies's revisionist Shakespeare delivers on its own, often puckish terms
The starry partnership of Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc misfires in series relaunch
Nick Broomfield in elegiac mode holds out for history
Lo-fi football sitcom starring Craig Cash and Sue Johnston has its heart in the right place
Agreeable scenery can't compensate for feeble plot and unconvincing characters
Benedict Cumberbatch chills in a notably bleak account of Shakespeare's crook-backed king
The uncompromising director to whom a new feature-length documentary pays tribute
Culture clash and class collision in bohemian north London
More whimper than bang as insightful series on modern masculinity ends in the City
Amazing archive film from the pioneer days of wildlife film-making