The idea of tackling this 13-hour Masterpiece Theatre production scared the Dickens out of Judge Bryan Pope.
Reflect on your present blessings, of which every man has many; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.
It's more than a little daunting sitting down to a nearly 13-hour television dramatization of the great Charles Dickens armed only with a rabid love of Oliver! and a vague recollection of having read Great Expectations almost two decades ago. Lucky for me, then, that this 1976 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, Dickens of London, is not only engagingly told, but also touches on enough universal themes to broaden its appeal beyond Dickens devotees.
Like his most beloved characters, Charles Dickens's life was as full of promise as it was disappointment and despair, with so much riding on circumstance. The cards were stacked against him as a young boy in the 1820s when his father was sent to debtor's jail, and it was a series of chance encounters and experiences that paved the way to his unlikely but extraordinarily successful career as a writer. Their influence—workhouses, poverty, social hierarchy—is evident in so many of his novels.
One does not envy screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, charged with giving shape to a man whose life was as tumultuous and heavily populated as one of his own monstrous tomes. But done it he has, and with admirable style and grace. By all accounts, his dense teleplay has been impeccably researched. Dickens's life is told as a series of flashbacks, and the dialogue is peppered with phrases attentive readers will immediately recognize from his writings.
Dickens's story is as compelling as Mankowitz's rendering of it is literate, but that doesn't hasten the program's pacing, which at times threatens to grind things to a halt. It also doesn't mask the staginess or frugal production values (doors tremble like thin cardboard when slammed). But once you move past those flaws, you'll admire the British cast, which is—not to put too fine a point on it—marvelous. Roy Dotrice, as both Charles and his father John, carries the hefty program on his slight shoulders, and he is who you will remember most. Simon Bell, as a young Charles, is also fine. Look for Ben Kingsley in an early role.
After investing 13 hours in the life of Charles Dickens, spending another hour watching "An Audience with Charles Dickens," the sole bonus feature in the package, may not sound at all enticing. Do watch it, though, so you can savor Simon Callow's captivating portrayal of Dickens reading "A Christmas Carol." Recorded in 1996 at London's Ambassadors Theatre, this one-man show is minimalist in the extreme—no sets or music, so it's up to gaslight and period dress by both Callow and the audience to set the mood—but it's one of the most enchanting renditions of the ghost story I've ever seen.
Koch Vision presents Dickens of London in a handsomely packaged five-disc set (the fifth disc is reserved exclusively for Callow's performance). The miniseries is shown in its original full-screen format with Dolby mono audio. Exterior scenes were filmed on 16mm, and there is a tremendous amount of grain present, making for a jarring transition from the smooth (if drab) interior scenes. The mono audio is adequate, but viewers may miss much of the dialogue due to insufficient miking and the thick British accents. Subtitles would have helped.
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