Emma Curry, ‘Dickensian’ panel discussion, featuring Tony Jordan and Professor Juliet John: Event Report

Emma Curry is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and recently submitted her thesis, titled ‘Language and the Fragmented Body in the Novels of Charles Dickens’. Over the past eighteen months Emma has also been coordinating the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project, a Twitter-based adaption of Dickens’s final completed novel. You can follow her on Twitter here: @EmmaLCurry

Dickensian cast
Dickensian cast

“What if it was set inside Dickens’s mind?”

With that single remark, it became clear that Tony Jordan’s new TV show would be a Dickens adaptation like no other. On Thursday 29th October, the London Screenwriting Seminar and Royal Holloway’s Centre for Victorian Studies jointly hosted a fantastic event in which Tony talked us through the process of creating this exciting new Dickens mash-up, Dickensian, from first idea to pitch to finished product, whilst Professor Juliet John provided some expert analysis from a Dickens studies perspective.

In recent years there has been a slew of new Dickens adaptations, inspired in part by the bicentenary celebrations in 2012, and viewers have been treated to a range of Dickensian reworkings, from a completed version of Edwin Drood to a motion-capture Christmas Carol, not to mention two new adaptations of Great Expectations in the same year. Tony began his talk by describing his keenness to find a new way of looking at Dickens on screen, that didn’t simply involve ‘updating’ the story to a modern setting, à la the BBC’s Sherlock (or even ITV’s modernized version of A Christmas Carol from 2000, which starred Ross Kemp as Eddie Scrooge, a loan shark operating on a Camden estate).

In searching for a new angle on these familiar Dickensian characters, Tony described his fascination with and enthusiasm for the many backstories, subplots, and unwritten histories that linger around the edges of Dickens’s most famous tales, from Miss Havisham’s jilting to the early years of Honoria Barbary (later Lady Dedlock). He also mused upon the possibility that the stories could be changed: what, for example, would happen if Little Nell didn’t die? Such an idea is one which has energised Dickens studies recently, and there has been some fascinating scholarly work in the last few years on the importance of the counterfactual to thinking about Dickens’s plots: Andrew Miller, Holly Furneaux, and others have reflected intriguingly on the ways in which Dickens’s narratives hinge as much on the things that don’t happen as the things that do. This concept is also clearly a hugely creative invitation for the screenwriter, and Tony described the ways in which Dickens’s densely populated and richly detailed narrative world inspired the idea of a show that would focus on unexplored or alternative character histories.

However, in attempting to piece together all of these various intriguing strands and subplots into one show, Tony described hitting a rather pressing obstacle: the timelines of each individual story didn’t fit together. Several of Dickens’s tales are set years before they are published (Great Expectations, for example is narrated by the adult Pip, placing Miss Havisham’s jilting at the hands of Compeyson many years before), whilst others are deliberately vague in their setting (Our Mutual Friend, for example, famously opens with the line, ‘in these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise’). It was here then that, in Tony’s words, the ‘mad’ concept with which I opened this piece was conceived: what if the story was set within Dickens’s mind? Tony referred here to the famous Robert Buss painting, ‘Dickens’s Dream’, in which Dickens’s characters linger around their creator whilst he sleeps, enacting their separate histories within touching distance of one another. Setting the story within Dickens’s imagination thus gave Tony creative free rein to include whichever Dickensian characters he liked, to situate them all upon the same (purpose-built) street, and to explore their lives intersecting in amusing and intriguing ways. In the world of Dickensian, then, we see familiar characters in new forms:  Nancy and Bill Sikes can frequent a pub owned by Silas Wegg and Mrs Gamp, whilst Inspector Bucket can investigate the murder of Jacob Marley (and have taxidermist Mr Venus as his forensics assistant, naturally).

Much of the talk (and, indeed, the Q&A afterwards) centred around the question of ‘fidelity’ to the original tales, a key element of much criticism on adaptation. However, having liberated the characters from the confines of their individual novels, Tony described the process of creating Dickensian as being much freer than a ‘traditional’ Dickens adaptation, allowing him to capture the spirit and essence of the originals whilst twisting the plots into new forms, and, most crucially of all, engaging viewers who might be new to Dickens. Indeed, rather than being unnecessarily intimidated by Dickens’s cultural weight or supposed ‘seriousness’, Tony described the importance of recognising his and Dickens’s shared interest in storytelling, and dwelt (to hilarious effect) upon their mutual love of the serial form and, most importantly, the cliff-hanger ending. Just as Tony’s work on EastEnders often involved dramatic reveals just before the famous closing drums, so too does Dickens include endings that invoke a gasp from the audience: Tony’s favourite being the closing lines of the first instalment of Great Expectations, in which the soldiers searching for Magwitch dramatically burst into Pip’s kitchen.

Tony also went on to describe the pitching process, although the idea of Mr Bumble and Mrs Gamp meeting seems to have been such an intriguing one that the BBC was quick to commission the series as soon as it was pitched! Nevertheless, Tony described the importance of committing to and believing in your project – advice that he palpably demonstrated through the joy and eloquence with which he spoke about the show throughout the night. Indeed, his enthusiasm and passion for his subject were such that by the end of the evening, we were all left desperate to see the first episode.

Following the main talk, there was a lively question and answer session, in which audience members proposed favourite characters that they were hoping to see included, and discussed the difficulties of adapting certain Dickens novels, such as Barnaby Rudge, in their original, unwieldy form. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the discussion came in response to a question on the title of the show, and on what the word ‘Dickensian’ meant to Tony as a writer. He responded that, for him, ‘Dickensian’ brought to mind an image of a window: on one side of the glass, he pictured a cosy fire-lit room, with cheery, red-faced occupants, a well-stocked table, and a convivial atmosphere; whilst on the other, he saw a small, hungry child, looking in longingly at the richness within. The image was so apt and starkly beautiful in crystallizing the dual energies of Dickens’s imaginative world that it has lingered in my mind ever since. I for one can’t wait to see that ‘Dickensian’ essence play out on screen.

Many thanks to Tony, Juliet, and Adam Ganz for organising such a fantastic and stimulating event!

The first episode of ‘Dickensian’ aired on Saturday 26th December at 7.00pm on BBC One. You can read Emily Bowles storify of this episode here

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