TV review: Dickensian, BBC One (4 stars)

TV review: Dickensian, BBC One

Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket (Bleak House)

An addictive mash-up of characters for Dickens obsessives and casual admirers alike

You can easily imagine the ideas meeting when the BBC decided to throw another Charles Dickens epic at a Christmas audience. The usual suspects would have been bandied about: how about yet another Great Expectations or maybe revisit Martin Chuzzlewit? But wait, how about we throw together a whole heap of characters from different books and have them interact with one another in ye olde London-town of the 19th century?

Like some weird televisual version of those animated adventures where characters from other comic strips meet up or (worse yet) supergroups like the Travelling Wilburys and the Dead Weather, this idea smacked of some dodgy one-hit wonder novelty record. And yet against every conceivable odd, Dickensian works like a dream. For one thing, why should it be so outrageous to have the fictionally disparate likes of Fagin, Nell Trent, Scrooge, Amelia Havisham rubbing shoulders along the city’s fog-filled cobbled streets given that they all emerged in the same era and location?

And given that creator Tony Jordan’s main aim was to breathe a little fresh life into the stories, he’s entirely justified to indulge in his most audacious twist by putting flesh on the carcasses of some back stories. We all know that Miss Havisham never recovered from being jilted on her wedding day, but what led up to that traumatic event has never been fully told. And Scrooge’s debt-collecting partner Jacob Marley is in our psyche as a ghost who died several years before the action begins in A Christmas Carol, so wouldn’t it be fun to speculate further on how he died? Especially if he is found coshed to bloody death with a line of potential suspects for the dastardly deed lengthier than the long arm of Inspector Bucket’s law.

Naturally, much of the show’s success lies in the performances and there are sterling turns from Stephen Rea as Bucket, Anton Lesser as Fagin, Pauline Collins as Mrs Gamp, Tuppence Middleton as Miss Havisham and Ned Dennehy as Scrooge. And so a stupendously entertaining series of 20 half-hour episodes of Dickens-inspired drama (how very soap-ish from Jordan, the man who was behind some of EastEnders’ more successful storylines) propels us into 2016 with a flourish.

Dickensian starts on BBC One, Saturday 26 December, 7pm.

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