Marley wasn’t dead to begin with. Not yet, anyway. That’s because this isn’t A Christmas Carol: it’s Dickensian, the new series from Tony Jordan. Charles, people love to say, would be writing soap operas, if he were alive today – so it’s only fitting that the EastEnders veteran should cram as many of the author’s characters as possible into one big serial. This is Dickens, dear reader, but not as you know it. But please, sir, does it leave you wanting more?
There’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing Dickens’ well-known faces from the page collide on screen. Within minutes, we’ve met Fagin (Anton Lesser) and Scrooge (Ned Dennehy), not to mention Miss Havisham (Tuppence Middleton) and Little Nell. The main villain, though, is Marley – and Peter Firth gobbles up every second of screen-time he gets like the whole set is made of ham. Demanding money be collected from Little Nell’s family, even as she lays there dying, he snorts, snarls and sighs with delightful venom. It’s no surprise, then, that he winds up dead by the end of the first episode, a cliffhanger befitting of Dickens. (In EastEnders terms, Peter Firth is essentially playing Ian Beale.)
Who murdered Marley? The trouble isn’t finding someone who hated him enough to kill him, but finding someone who didn’t, points out Scrooge. Dennehy steps naturally into the spotlight as our resident bad guy, spitting “Bah, humbug!” in way that manages to make you forget Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol – although you do wish that Kermit the Frog was included in the mash-up.
The suspects are plentiful, of course. There’s Little Nell’s family, placed under pressure by the moneylenders. There’s Bill Sikes, with his infamous wooden cane. And Anton Lesser’s Fagin is naturally snivelly and suspicious. And so on and so forth.
It’s the perfect excuse for Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea) to stroll the streets between each novel and interrogate Dickens’ creations. Rea is excellent, easily shouldering the responsibility of holding the thing together – while Jordan takes care to credit him as one of literature’s first detectives in an amusing chat with Omid Djalili’s Mr. Venus (out of Our Mutual Friend).
That balance between grim mortality and light humour is in keeping with the writer’s work – Little Nell’s sick squirming, while Mrs. Gamp (from Martin Chuzzlewit) looks on, bottle of booze in hand, is the kind of scene you can imagine Dickens enjoying himself. Other storylines are essentially prequels to the novels: Miss Havisham here becomes young Amelia, mourning the loss of her father and fending off the interests of Mr. Compeyson, who’s in league with her brother, Arthur, to diddle her out of the inheritance. “I don’t need you to solve my problems,” she retorts, with an air-punching independence that smartly (and sadly) foreshadows Miss Havisham’s eventual fate.
It’s in these moments that Jordan’s love of Dickens really does shine through – and the gargantuan effort involved in extracting each person and stitching them together is commendable indeed. The problem is that you notice it a little too often, as characters name-drop each other and dash on and off-camera in what could amount to little more than playful cameos. It’s telling that the best moment in the opening two episodes (aside from an exchange between Scrooge and Inspector Bucket) is the sight of The Old Curiosity Shop sitting in the background of the street, like the launderette in Albert Square.
Will the mystery of Marley’s murder really be able to stretch out for 20 episodes? With Dickens dead to begin with, if anyone’s able to do it, you’d wager money on Jordan, not least because he’s got the cast to back him up. But two episodes in and Dickensian is still waiting to find that one-more-episode hook that’s kept people tuning into EastEnders for years – it’s no coincidence that the BBC is showing its first four episodes over two days in double-bills. The programme arrives in the wake of another compendium show: Penny Dreadful, which takes a similar inter-textual approach to horror classics. John Logan’s series, though, seems to reach levels of high art with its trashy formula without breaking a sweat – a classy patchwork that makes Jordan’s collage pale in comparison. But if you can set your expectations a little less great than Sky and Showtime’s drama, Dickensian has charming promise and an irresistibly fun premise. Even if it only ends up as a game of Spot the Novel, what larks could be had here, Pip. What larks.
Dickensian is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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Photo: Steffan Hill / BBC Red Planet