Why poke fun at Charles Dickens?

Oliver Twist Scenes from Oliver Twist are instantly recognisable

Charles Dickens is a genuine national treasure, his works read by millions and the television adaptations usually ratings hits. But his novels and characters are also ripe for satire, says Gareth Edwards.

We love Charles Dickens. The narrow fog-bound streets full of urchins; the kind-hearted impecunious clerks; the hard-hearted skinflints; Twist, Scrooge, Pickwick, all are woven into the fabric of our national subconscious.

Long before soap operas and sit-coms his novels, in their weekly or monthly instalments, had tens of thousands of fans laughing, crying and waiting for the next episode. Charles Dickens is part of the British soul.

One of the most surprising things about Dickens is that he's still funny. Humour doesn't always keep well, and while a lot of Shakespeare's jokes have passed their sell-by date, a well-crafted Dickens joke can still make us laugh out loud.

My personal favourite is in A Christmas Carol where he writes that Scrooge's large house was so out of place in its narrow street that "it must have run there when it was a young house playing at hide and seek with other houses, and forgotten its way out again".

His turns of phrase, his characters' absurdities, his comic set-pieces still have real comic life.

Part of the secret of his durability must be that each generation re-invents Charles Dickens in its own image.

BBC1's recent gritty detective drama version of Bleak House and the same channel's scandal and debt-strewn Little Dorrit tell us as much about the 21st Century as the 19th.

Similarly, Roman Polanski's 2005 Oliver features the hanging of a troubled, victimised Fagin and the mental scarring of the abused Artful Dodger, when 40 years earlier both of them got to dance off into the sunset in the more innocent 60s musical. Time and again we re-discover him, and find that he has something particular to say to us.

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That's because Dickens wrote about ordinary human lives faced by extremes. Extremes of poverty; extremes of cruelty; extremes of harshness. He was drawn to the subject because he felt he lived in a time of extremes and this made him anxious because he was above all a fundamentalist moderate.

He wanted people to have the space to live their lives away from the crushing forces of greed, selfishness and dogma. He wasn't opposed to any one form of government, or any one social injustice.

He was opposed to inhumanity, and this is invariably the target of his satire. Dickens is on our side, laughing with us at the inhumane, the faceless, the authoritarian, and it makes us warm to him time and again.

But while we love him for that, being opposed to inhumanity isn't a particularly risky position for a novelist, and from the moment people began to laugh with Dickens they have also been laughing at him.

Uncle Charlie

His contemporary Anthony Trollope nicknamed him Mr Popular Sentiment - "a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard".

Oscar Wilde wrote of The Old Curiosity Shop that "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing".

Matthew Kelly in Bleak House Some characters are ripe for caricature

Over the years everyone from Lenin to The Muppets have had a laugh at Dickens' expense, and Radio 4's Bleak Expectations is the latest in that long tradition. Just as Dickens gets reinvented by each new generation, so each new generation feels the urge to find a new way to have a bit of a go at him.

But while a work like Bleak Expectations seemingly takes delight in dismantling that cosy Dickensian world, it also takes delight in inhabiting it.

The streets and homes of Dickens's world are so familiar to us, its ways so reassuring, that to joke about it feels like joking about a friendly uncle. It's a laughter full of affection, as if while we are laughing at him, we feel Dickens himself might very well enjoy the joke too.

Maybe Dickens would enjoy the fact that we don't see him as a sour-faced monolithic cultural institution. We see him as member of the family, someone who might enjoy not being taken too seriously.

And maybe that's a part of why we still love Dickens - because we know Dickens loves us enough not to begrudge us a laugh at his expense.

Gareth Edwards is a comedy producer for BBC Radio

Below is a selection of your comments

And don't forget Catherine Tate's wonderful "Christmas Carol" with the awful Nan and the camp Ghost of Christmas Present! I think Dickens would've approved...

whogal, Reading, UK

I've always thought that Lenin/The Muppets etc. are laughing with Dickens rather than at him, but there is more to his work than may initially appear. I was once in a band with my brothers and the songs I penned were often the butt of their jokes, however what they didn't realise was these songs have deeper meanings, much like Dickens' work. For example, 'Eye's hurting' appeared to be about a sore eye, but was actually about heartbreak ("I is hurting").

Gibbsy Crichton, Manchester

I know at heart I'm bias, but I hate that this article dismisses the humour of older writers as if Dickens is the only one who remains funny to a modern audience (though I would note this is based on a very narrow take on Dickens). For instance, who didn't laugh at the BBC adaptation of the Millers Tale a few years ago - more than 600 years old and still hilarious. Yes some of the witty plays on words of Shakespeare may be lost on a modern audience, but Chaucer knew how to please his audience - toilet humour works every time! And even the article makes the point that Dickens only retains his humour because he has been modernised. Chaucer's language may need updating for a mass audience but his jokes are original.

Rhiannon, Kent

One of the most pervasive themes through all Dickens books is the absolute absurdity of government departments and politicians existing or operating for their own satisfaction, and being incomprehensible to ordinary man in the street. The most likeable characters are always those who find a way to beat the rules or manage to succeed despite them. So just about as satirical and modern as you can get.

Deirdre Wells, Berkshire

As long as we are still talking about him, reading his works, watching the TV and film adaptations he will be with us - even Doctor Who had to have him in there. But let's not forget that he also used his writing to cause social change. Queen Victoria was a huge fan and when Dickens heard of the atrocities being carried out in a boarding school in Sheffield he hired a coach and drove all night to get there to see for him self. He then wrote a story about what he had seen, (Nicholas Nickleby) a work seemingly of fiction. However, when the Queen read it she was so outraged it caused questions to be asked in Parliament and a law was passed soon after regarding the treatment of boys in schools. His was possibly the first works to have such an affect. He is after all the only non Royal to have an era named after him.

J Henson, Rugby Warwickshire

As long as we are still talking about him, reading his works, watching the TV and film adaptations he will be with us, even Doctor Who had to have him in there. But let's not forget that he also used his writing to cause social change, Queen Victoria was a huge fan, and when Dickens heard of the atrocities being carried out in a boarding school in Sheffield he hired a coach and drove all night to get there to see for himself, he then wrote a story about what he had seen (Nicholas Nickleby), a work seemingly of fiction. However, when the Queen read it she was so outraged it caused questions to be asked in Parliament and a law was passed soon after regarding the treatment of boys in schools. His was possibly the first works to have such an effect. He is after all the only non-royal to have an era named after him.

J Henson, Rugby, Warwickshire

"Why have they shut the workhouse and are the prisons full'? The line spoken by George C Scott as Scrooge, when asked to make a donation to help the poor... not sure if it is in the book but.... How very 21 21st Century Century.

Allan Pilgrim, St Austell

Millions of people have read Dickens short novel 'A Christmas Carol'. It is a masterpiece of a book and is still as relevant today as it was in the 19th Century. The incredible thing is the book is firmly entrenched in the psyche of the English-speaking world and way beyond. Not many authors can print that on their CV. Dickens writing was genius and its wonderful that he is still as popular.

Jerome D Hill, Swansea, west Glamorgan

Never liked reading Dickens but I would support the enduring attraction of his characters. I was watching an Italian film version of David Copperfield, now my Italian is a bit ropey but the larger than life characters are so well defined and recognisable I could enjoy the presentation and follow the story without any trouble.

M. Savage, Glasgow

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