Entertainment & Arts

Mashing up the world of Charles Dickens

Dickensian
Image caption Miss Havisham as you've never seen her before

Think you know your Dickens? Think again. The world of the master storyteller is about to be turned on its head with BBC One's Dickensian - a 20-part series where an array of his colourful characters mingle together.

It is the brainchild of Tony Jordan, a long-time writer on EastEnders.

Just don't call Dickensian a period soap.

"The idea was to be a celebration of Dickens. I'll take [the term] continuing drama and I'll take episodic, but I don't like the term soap opera for it," says Jordan.

"It's only 20 hours, it's episodic and that's how I think Dickens wrote, he kept you waiting - 'make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait'.

"It's very easy for people to say it's like a period soap but I think that's laziness because soap by its very nature has to be contemporary, that's what soaps are - a way of reflecting our own life and watching other people make the same mistakes as us and making judgements on them."

Dickensian starts, fittingly, on BBC One on 26 December and, much like many a Dickens adaptation, is set amid a typical snowy street scene, with bonnets and breeches galore and a local pub which will prove a hub for the drama.

But that's where the comparisons to the usual Dickens drama ends - as the viewer has no idea who might pop up and from which of his many books.

Image caption Joan Hickson played Miss Havisham in the 1981 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations

One of the biggest surprises from the opening episode is the appearance of Jacob Marley, who can usually only be found in ghostly form in A Christmas Carol, haunting his former business partner Ebenezer Scrooge.

But here he is alive and kicking, rubbing shoulders with that "receiver of stolen goods" Fagin, and Grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop - but maybe not for long.

Jordan describes cherry picking Dickens' characters as a "gift": "I felt like a child in a toy shop," he says.

"Two things struck me that were most fascinating. Firstly, I love watching adaptations of Miss Havisham. Everyone brought something different, but essentially it's the same character at the same point in her life and I was fascinated as to what led her to that point.

Image caption Tony Jordan visited areas frequented by Dickens or a BBC documentary The Secret Life of Books

"The second thing was the fact Jacob Marley is always dead - even in A Muppets Christmas Carol he was dead."

Great Expectations' Miss Havisham has been played on screen many times, with the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson and Joan Hickson playing her as a jilted crazed lady who refuses to remove her wedding dress.

But in Dickensian she is a beautiful young woman who finds herself the head of her father's company, sparking the ire of her brother and possibly setting in motion her demise.

Tuppence Middleton was given the task of showing a new side to Miss Havisham.

"Everyone knows Miss Havirsham as an embittered, vengeful, eccentric lady living in her wedding dress in this house for years. When I first auditioned I thought 'Oh my God, I'm not old enough for this part' and then I realised they were doing her as young woman, and that has never been done.

Image caption Ned Dennehy takes on the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge

"It's very exciting when you get to create this whole new character. I like the idea that she was this young woman who was full of hope and just fell in love with the wrong person, and then it turns into this very strange life for her."

Jordan says there are only about 10 lines in Great Expectations which dwell on Miss Havisham's past, but they are "10 lines of genius".

"I wanted to make a statement early on that you don't know what to expect. You don't know if Miss Havisham is going to marry and live happily ever after, because I might do that. Or that [The Old Curiosity Shop's] Little Nell didn't actually die."

Another of Dickens characters that was handpicked for this mash-up was Mrs Bumble from Oliver Twist, she who runs the workhouse where Oliver dared ask for more.

"I have loved playing her," says Caroline Quentin.

"I looked at the script as I would any other acting role and I looked at the writing. I didn't really care it was about Dickens, I wanted to know what the story would be like and the quality of the written word.

"But these are some of the best scripts I've ever read and these characters are so alive and relevant. It was such a joy to step in, put your bonnet on and get stuck in.

"I'm hoping my children will come to this and learn about Dickens - it's making it accessible for them."

Image caption Nancy and Bill Sykes make an appearance

But is this for those that may never have picked up a Dickens book in their life and think it's all bonnets and crotchety old men and women?

Jordan believes much of today's popular TV writers have drawn inspiration from Dickens, including John Sullivan from Only Fools and Horses.

"You can't be a writer and not like Dickens," he says. "What I like about him was he was a popular writer who loved an audience. He was a showman."

So did he feel under pressure to be true to Dickens and his classics?

"I'm not a great Dickens scholar... I mostly watched adaptations," he says.

"The interesting thing for me was when I studied Dickens' The Man and that helped me a great deal because once I understood his desire to reach a popular audience, once I understood the showman in him, once I understood his slightly colourful private life...I kind of felt him on my shoulder almost.

"I think if Dickens were alive I genuinely, 100%, think this is what he would be doing. Grabbing the opportunity of going on probably the world's biggest channel and putting all his characters together. I think he would have loved the idea of that."

And Jordan is hoping his appetite for Dickens will be matched by the audience's as he has already scripted 60 episodes and is banking on the BBC commissioning more series.

"I think Dickens created something in excess of 2,000 characters and I have only used 30 so. There's so much to do that hasn't been done."

Dickensian begins on BBC One at 19:00 GMT on 26 December, followed by a second episode at 20:30 GMT.

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