Anna Campbell

June 2010


What the Dickens!

MFTjune10-2The world is packed to the rafters with Charles Dickens lovers. My mother was one. A lot of my favorite writers list Dickens as THEIR favorite writer. They praise the teeming life, the humor, the compassion, the variety, the drama, the atmosphere.

Hmm, I can kinda see it.

Yep, shock, horror! I’m not a huge fan of old Charlie. I’ve read a few – David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities. Tried and failed to get through Nicholas Nickleby. I think the stories are pretty good but there’s an element of caricature to many of his characters that doesn’t appeal to me. And man, I really don’t think he liked women very much!

But I’m seriously thinking of trying Dickens again, it’s thanks to the 1998 BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.

I watched this when it was first broadcast and recently got it out on DVD. I was blown away all over again by what magnificent television this is. It (along with North and South which deserves at least one MFT column to itself and not just because of gorgeous Richard!) is my favorite of the BBC takes on classic books. What, I hear you ask, not Pride and Prejudice? I enjoy that but have a few problems with it, pretty as Colin and his wet shirt are. Bleak House had numerous admirers too but while I think it starts beautifully, the ending is like one of those three-day tours of the sights of Europe, rush, rush, rush. Hey, perhaps they went to Russia! Snort.

MFTjune10-3Our Mutual Friend strikes me as just right. And breathtakingly romantic which is even better! You get not one, but two luscious love stories for your money as well as a panoramic view of Victorian society from the very poorest to the upper classes. It’s a huge, delicious banquet!

People often comment on my books as a journey from darkness to light (and they’re right). But OMF is an über journey from the depths of darkness to shining brilliance. The story starts in the murk and fog and desperation of the lives of the people who scavenge the Thames for flotsam and jetsam, including dead bodies. Gaffer Hexam (David Schofield) drags a drowned man from the filthy river and sets events in motion. The corpse is identified as John Harmon, the heir to a dust heap fortune (basically he had scavenging rights on London’s rubbish) who is back in England after many years in South Africa. The money instead goes to the naïve and illiterate Boffins (Peter Vaughan and Pam Ferris) who decide to cut a dash in society.

MFTjune10The Boffins adopt Bella Wilfer (Anna Friel), engaged to John Harmon sight-unseen in an arranged marriage. Bella is spoilt and avaricious, but beautiful. She’s determined to rise in the world and never be poor again, although her poverty is nothing compared to that experienced by the people along the river. The Boffins employ the mysterious John Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh) as their secretary. Rokesmith was present when the corpse was pulled from the river and is clearly hiding a BIG secret. Not only that, he’s madly in love with flighty Bella who treats him with contempt. During the investigation into the drowning, Gaffer Hexam’s beautiful daughter Lizzie (Keeley Hawes) meets and falls in love with upper-class lawyer Eugene Wrayburn (Paul McGann). In class-conscious Victorian society, marriage to a woman of her background is unacceptable. He seeks to make her his mistress and she ends up fleeing London to save Wrayburn from the threats posed by her other suitor, violently emotional schoolmaster Bradley Headstone. By the way, David Morrissey gives a bravura performance as the tormented teacher.

That’s only an introduction to the riches of this series. Over its nearly six hours, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be scared, you’ll be horrified, and you’ll sigh over the two love affairs. The acting is wonderful and Sandy Welch’s adaptation is exemplary. How she manages to juggle all the plotlines leaves me utterly in awe.

This is just the show to watch on a rainy weekend. You’ll love it!