Bleak House - on BBC ONE from Thursday 27 October 2005 at 8.00pm
Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, Alistair McGowan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas lead a star cast in a ground-breaking adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House for BBC ONE.
Bleak House is one of Dickens' most celebrated achievements - generally regarded as the greatest-ever depiction of Victorian London in fiction.
It is a skilfully crafted thriller and passionate indictment of the legal system - which is as searingly relevant today as it was in the mid-19th century.
The adaptation, written by multiple Bafta award-winner Andrew Davies, comprises a one-hour opening episode followed by 14 half-hour episodes.
Shot in High Definition format, Bleak House will be shown twice weekly, using the pace, multiple storylines and cliff-hanger endings more usually associated with popular drama.
The drama is the third collaboration between Andrew Davies and producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, following The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right.
Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark thinks Charles Dickens himself would approve of the groundbreaking way the new version is being presented.
Bleak House was first published in 19 monthly instalments from March 1852 until September 1853, so the new 15-part BBC version very much captures the spirit of the original.
"We've set out to bring Dickens back to the audience for which he was writing," explains Nigel, who won Bafta awards for Warriors and The Way We Live Now.
"He was unashamedly writing for a mainstream popular audience and that tends to get slightly forgotten today because his books have become classics.
"His stuff was serialised and sold on the streets, so once a month a new episode of the new Dickens would come out and be sold like a magazine to everybody.
"By the time he wrote Bleak House, Charles Dickens was very well established and there was enormous excitement and anticipation about each instalment.
"People were excited in the way that they are now about a new series of a popular television drama like Spooks or Shameless.
"If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would probably be writing big signature dramas like State of Play or Shameless. He would be writing for television because he recognised a popular medium when he saw it.
"He was absolutely tuned in to the needs of an audience so he wrote for serialisation; he used cliff-hangers as a way of getting an audience to come back for the next episode.
"He invented several genres as he went. For instance, in Bleak House he invented the murder mystery - it's extraordinary to consider how many people have used it since."
Because it is being presented in a new way, Nigel Stafford- Clark hopes that Bleak House will attract a broad new audience.
"The BBC was keen to explore fresh approaches to classic adaptation.
"There is a whole section of a popular television audience that may feel Sunday night classic adaptations are not for them.
"What we're saying to people about Bleak House is: 'Just sample it and see, because it contains within it all the things that you enjoy in popular drama'.
"Dickens was an immensely entertaining and popular writer and I think he would 100 per cent approve of what we've done with Bleak House."
Writer Andrew Davies is clearly an admirer of Charles Dickens' work.
"His novels are full of energy and are teaming with life," he says.
"I love the way he makes such a rich mixture of humour, tragedy, sentiment and social indignation. You get so many different things rolled up into one great book.
"He had such a vivid imagination and some of his characters are just extraordinary. Bleak House combines a terrific mystery with a series of love stories.
"Because it totals eight hours, which compared with most recent serials is a really long one, [our] Bleak House is really going to give the flavour of reading a big, long novel."
Davies approves of Bleak House's position in the schedules, earlier in the evening than many costume dramas are often broadcast.
"We're hoping that we will catch a slightly different and broader audience than usual," he says. "It's early enough for older primary school children to watch.
"I've got grandchildren of six and ten and they are up to reading Harry Potter books and I think they could cope with watching Bleak House - and really enjoy it."
Nigel Stafford Clark hopes the half-hour format will leave viewers wanting more.
"What you get in half an hour is a bit like how you feel watching an episode of 24," he says.
"You get that feeling of: 'Is it over already? I want to see the next episode!' That's exactly what we want, because with this the pace of it is fast and more akin to a contemporary show."
Andrew Davies agrees. "The thing that was uppermost in our minds was to tell the story in a way that made people absolutely die to know what happens next," he says.
"People also need to care about the characters and a lot of that comes down to the way they are played - and we certainly have some wonderful performances.
"People have asked me: 'What's it like?' and I've been saying it's got the most terrific performances in it and it would be a shame to miss it!"
He also thinks Dickens would approve. "He was a great performer of his own work and used to give readings, and I think he would certainly appreciate the performances," he says.
"I hope he'd like the picture we've given of Dickensian London. I think he'd think we'd hit the right note in terms of humour and passion."
Charles Dickens created a great cornucopia of characters in Bleak House and the new BBC version complements that with the range and breadth of talent playing them.
The cast has been assembled from different areas of the acting profession and their skills have blended seamlessly to recreate Dickensian England.
"We wanted to cast known faces from a variety of different backgrounds, all known to the audience that we are trying to attract," says Stafford Clark.
"Getting Gillian Anderson was a huge coup for us and very unexpected because, although we wanted to get her, we weren't sure we'd be able to.
"Gillian is a big star - The X-Files has made her a household name - and yet from the moment she stepped on the set she was there for the show.
"She was a trouper and just got on with it and helped set the tone. If she had to roll her sleeves up and do something 25 times in pouring rain then she was there - not a problem.
"Other people started committing to the project, which was fantastic, and we ended up assembling the most extraordinary cast list - it's a cast list to die for.
"It covers the whole spectrum - from really well-established classical actors through to actors who people wouldn't necessary expect to see in a period drama.
"People really wanted to be part of it - and with 40 principal roles, there really isn't a weak performance. Everybody stepped up."
In addition to Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance,
Alistair McGowan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas, the cast
Anna Maxwell Martin, Nathaniel Parker, Timothy West, John Lynch, Anne Reid, Liza Tarbuck, Ian Richardson and Roberta Taylor.
Also starring are Charlie Brooks, Richard Griffiths, Warren Clarke, Matthew Kelly, Catherine Tate, Alun Armstrong, Hugo Speer, Phil Davis and Sheila Hancock.
Also vital to filming were the set and locations that helped the production team to turn the clock back to create Victorian England.
Nigel Stafford Clark explains: "We took a decision that we would try and find one large, empty historic house with a variety of different sized rooms, and we'd use that house to be the interiors of a lot of different places.
"That would save us having to move location every few days and meant we could stay mainly in one place, which could become like a studio and therefore we could shoot more quickly.
"Our location manager found the perfect place - Balls Park, just outside Hertford, which is a Grade I listed building and it fitted the bill and had everything we needed.
"It even had a room we were able to use as Chancery, which is at the heart of Bleak House and around which all the various stories revolve.
"The Balls Park mansion has this wood-panelled room which goes up three floors and up to the roof - no one could tell us what it had been used for - but it was just what we needed."
A school, Cobham Hall in Kent (which is close to Gad's Hill Place where Charles Dickens lived for many years), became the exterior of the Dedlocks' home, Chesney Wold.
"When he was living in Kent, Dickens used to walk to a pub in Cobham through the very grounds of Cobham Hall where we filmed," says Nigel Stafford-Clark.
Some interiors at Cobham, such as the hall, were also used and the exterior of Balls Park was used for the exterior of Boythorn's House.
Sixteenth century manor house Ingatestone Hall in Essex - which is open to the public - became the exterior of Bleak House.
The bustling 19th century streets of London containing, amongst others, Snagsby's and Krook's shops, were created at the stable block at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire.
Production designer Simon Elliott and his team built new frontages onto existing buildings and the existing cobbles could be used without alternation.
"We were even able to build false interiors so that we could follow our characters down the street and then take the cameras into the shops, like Krook's lair, with them," says Nigel Stafford-Clark.
"Using the stable block meant we could use a set that was twice the size of anything else we could have afforded to build from scratch."
Bleak House... in numbers
Episodes - 15
Speaking roles - 80
Principal cast members - 40
Weeks of shooting - 21
Extras (in total) - 2,000
Extras (in any one scene) - 75
First day of shooting - 7 February, Charles Dickens' birthday