It's with a mixture of relief and deep envy that I can say that BBC's Dickensian is seriously good. This project, mixing characters from different Dickens novels together in one costume drama, is such a dream for any Dickens fan who has ever strung two words together that it is difficult to accept with good grace that someone else is penning it, especially if that someone admits to not being a Dickens expert. This seems to have been misplaced modesty, however - Tony Jordan and his co-authors show a good grasp of Great Expectations, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol and - on the whole - Oliver Twist, which is a good start. There are also the nerdy references to other Dickens books which a project like this needs - for example, the clothes shop where both Honoria Barbary and Martha Cratchit work is Mantalini's from Nicholas Nickleby. But no mention of anything Dombey-related so far.
I'm twelve episodes into the twenty-episode-long first series. (Will there be a second? Here's hoping.) There are three main storylines, two prequels and a murder mystery. We get to see what really happened between Honoria Barbary and Captain Hawdon and why she consented to become Lady Dedlock. We also see the events leading up to Miss Havisham's abandonment on her wedding day - Satis House has unceremoniously been moved to the middle of London. In the meantime, Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea - perfect for this part) is trying to find out who killed Jacob Marley. Notable subplots include Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sikes, who are also very much suspects in the ongoing murder investigation.
But will Honoria really be forced to give up her captain? Will Amelia (of all suggested first names for Miss Havisham, the best that I've come across) be abandoned, or will she see through Compeyson in time? In the very first episode, we see Little Nell surviving her illness, which is a sign that everything may not turn out as it does in the novels. It's a delightful idea and keeps us on our toes, though I wonder how future storylines would look if the Dedlock marriage and Havisham tragedy do not go ahead, as they're the starting point of Bleak House and Great Expectations respectively.
Of course there are gripes. I was sorry to see that the wonderfully unreconstructed Scrooge thinks as little of his ex-partner as everyone else (so as to make him a plausible suspect): Scrooge and Marley in Carol may have been bad men, but they were good friends. And while Carol's Marley was no saint, he's hardly as wicked as he's depicted here (again, the better to make him a person as many people as possible would have liked to murder). Characters from Dickens's lesser-known novels are a little undefined and not quite like themselves: Wegg has a wooden leg, Mrs Gamp is fond of gin and, er, that's pretty much it. In the latter case, there is no mention of Mrs Harris. I don't think the series writers have quite grasped the nature of the Bumble marriage - no long-standing affair, as is hinted here, but a late-blossoming romance which quicky turned sour - and I don't really see what part the Bumbles have to play in the plot, unless one of them brained Marley, which admittedly would be something. All in all, though, Dickens's characters are recognisable, intelligently handled and excellently acted.
What about villains, then? Ah. Now we get down to it. There is a villain around - apart from Fagin and Scrooge - who pursues his plans with consummate skill and is mesmerisingly played by the remarkably handsome Tom Weston-Jones. The bad news is, it's Compeyson.
Yes, Compeyson, Dickens's least likeable villain ever. Worse than Sikes, who at least loved Nancy. Worse than Bounderby, who was just an idiot. Worse than Old Orlick who, though an oaf, did have a fraction of a case. Worse than seducer colleagues Steerforth and Harthouse, who had some sort of tender feelings, however fleeting, for the girls they were pursuing. One of my pet Dickens theories is that he deliberately kept Compeyson in the background as much as possible in Great Expectations and didn't give him any memorable lines - hardly any lines at all - so as to make it completely impossible for anyone to be charmed by the worm who blighted Miss Havisham's and Magwitch's lives. Yet a man who could seduce a bright lass like Miss H and convince a judge that he was a gentleman and deserved a lenient sentence must have had charm, and that's what we see in Dickensian.
So what's the problem - I'm a villain-lover, aren't I? Yes, but there's more to villain-loving than thinking a baddie is a bit of all right. It entails feeling affection and sympathy for the selected villain, rooting for him and seeing things from his point of view. It's impossible to do this with Compeyson, who is just as cruel and heartless in Dickensian as in Great Expectations, and has no excuse for his behaviour whatsoever. (Though it's interesting to see how the whole abandoning-on-wedding-day scenario wasn't part of the original plan at all, the original plan being somewhat hazy - I could write a whole separate post on the complicated sibling relationship between Amelia and her half-brother Arthur, and the even more complicated relationship between Arthur and Compeyson.) The result is a sort of villain-related cognitive dissonance where I have to acknowledge the hotness of Compeyson as played by Weston-Jones, while still finding him - Compeyson, that is - a despicable human being.
Hm, maybe non-villain-lovers have these sort of experiences quite often?